NEW ORLEANS -- Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s decision not to pursue criminal action against New Orleans judges who used court funds for supplemental insurance purchases doesn’t mean the judges are off the hook.
According to multiple sources, the judges have been called to hearings by the Judiciary Commission – the disciplinary arm of the Louisiana Supreme Court – in response to a complaint about the insurance perks.
Because Judiciary Commission proceedings are private, there may never be a full accounting on how the high court has decided to handle this longstanding controversy.
Eyewitness Investigates revealed the purchase of supplemental insurance benefits by Orleans civil and criminal court judges in a series of stories beginning in 2011.
The stories prompted the state legislative auditor to review the decades-old practice, in which judges used fines and fees paid to the Judicial Expense Fund to pay for a wide range of insurance policies, including health, dental, cancer, critical illness, vision and life.
Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera found that between Orleans civil and criminal courts, the judges spent more than $800,000 in extra insurance since 2009.
More importantly, Purpera found that the purchases violate state law.
“These are public funds and they have used those funds for personal purposes," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a law enforcement watchdog group.
“What's going to be done by the state Supreme Court as they look at this?” Goyeneche asked. “This is clearly over the top, when you look at hundreds of thousands of dollars. We're not talking about a dental policy. We're talking about a smorgasbord of insurance benefits."
In their public responses the audits, the judges disagreed that the funds used to buy the insurance was public money. But privately, according to sources in both courts, some judges have quietly repaid the cost of their extra insurance purchases.
There may never be a full accounting of the money reimbursed by the judges. According to multiple sources, the judges have responded to the judiciary complaints individually.
Eyewitness News recently requested records of the repayments from both courts. Civil court denied our request, citing health privacy rules.
“Though the JEF (Judicial Expense Fund) has documents responsive to this request, the JEF maintains that any amounts that may have been paid by any judge for health insurance premiums or benefits is protected by HIPAA and therefore not subject to a public records request,” stated the response from the Civil Court judges.
Criminal court, meanwhile, previously disclosed that judges and judicial administrators repaid more than $71,893 dollars in cash payouts they received from life insurance policies. The court is still reviewing our request for a detailed accounting of those repayments.
Goyeneche said complete disclosure of the insurance purchases – and repayments – is long overdue.
"I think this is really an untenable position for the court. I think it erodes the public confidence in the court in general and with respect to these judges particularly," Goyeneche said.
But one cost that the judges did reveal, at least partially, is the amount of public money spent on attorneys to defend the insurance and fight disclosure of the records.
In 2012, civil court racked up more than $3,182 in attorneys' fees, according to invoices from the law firm Christovich and Kearney, LLP.
Criminal court, which provided records covering 2012, spent $13,647 paying attorneys to deal with the issue, according to a series of invoices from the law firm Milling Benson Woodward, LLP.
Goyeneche said the payment of legal fees with court money “only makes a bad situation worse.”
“It’s even more absurd,” he said “Again, it's a further abuse of their discretion in using public funds to resist and defeat the public's attempt to find out how they have managed these funds."