NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Criminal Court Judge Paul Bonin was hit with a federal class action lawsuit Wednesday alleging that he steered criminal defendants to an electronic monitoring company co-owned by his former law partner.
The suit tracks findings made by the non-profit group Court Watch NOLA last year in its annual report. The watchdog group alleged that Bonin steered more than a dozen defendants to a company called ETOH, a major campaign contributor co-owned by Bonin’s one-time law partner Leonard Levenson.
The lawsuit documents that between 2005 and 2016, Levenson and ETOH co-owner Christian Helmke donated or loaned a total of $9,650 to Bonin over the course of the three judicial election campaigns.
Filed on behalf of two defendants who appeared before Bonin, the suit
claims that some of the judge’s decision were swayed by his relationship to ETOH.
“Judge Bonin has made or has appeared to make ankle monitoring decisions—including pretrial jailing decisions—based on the financial interests of ETOH, the private company with which he has personal, financial, professional, and political relationships,” wrote William Maurer, attorney for the Institute for Justice, the national advocacy group that filed the lawsuit.
When a criminal defendant is released on bail, judges routinely order house arrest or other restrictions through the use of ankle bracelets. In New Orleans, the monitoring is done by one of two private companies that charge defendants up to $10 a day.
Simone Levine, director of Court Watch NOLA, said their findings showed that Bonin threatened to jail some of the defendants who fell behind on their payments to ETOH.
“We received direct evidence that the judge had threatened to incarcerate defendants if they did not, could not pay,” Levine said.
Maurer repeats those claims in the lawsuit.
“We had a significant problem with Judge Bonin as sort of the debt collector for ETOH,” he said.
Levine said her group sent its findings to the Louisiana Judiciary Commission, which investigates judges on behalf of the state Supreme Court. Because such inquiries are carried out in secret, there is no way to track the complaint.
Maurer said the lawsuit will allow for a public airing of the issue.
“We're asking for a return of the money that was collected by ETOH from each of these defendants. And this is a class action suit, so it's going to be every defendant,” Maurer said.
In at least a couple of instances uncovered by WWL-TV, Bonin allegedly ordered defendants to switch from a competing company to ETOH. Stephen Smith was the attorney in one of those cases.
“I get an email from Judge Bonin saying my client didn't get the monitoring device put on and that he was going to put out a warrant for my client's arrest,” Smith said.
Smith said he told the judge that his client did have an ankle bracelet, just not from ETOH. He recalled an episode in Bonin’s courtroom when he tried to explain that his client was wearing an ankle monitor provided by ETOH’s primary competitor, A2I.
“The judge is coming out of the back. He sees me. He just goes ballistic. He starts screaming at me about he ordered me to use a specific company,” Smith said.
Helmke, speaking on behalf of ETOH, slammed the lawsuit as baseless.
He said the company never solicited business from Judge Bonin and the campaign contributions had no connection to ETOH.
“This is a false narrative,” Helmke said. “We will defend against this lawsuit. What happened is nothing like what they’re trying to portray.”
Bonin and the court’s judicial administrator did not return calls for comment. But the judge did address the issue in a letter to defense attorneys last spring.
In the letter, Bonin wrote the he disagreed with Court Watch NOLA’s contention that using ETOH for defendants in his court was a conflict of interest.
“I disagree with the opinion expressed by Ms. Levine, but consider that a clarification of my policy would be helpful,” Bonin wrote. “Any defendant may select either A2I or ETOH for his or her monitoring service… Additionally, as I have done in the past, I will consider any other GPS monitoring firm (including those not local) if you are aware of one which can meet my expectations for monitoring and reporting obligations.”
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