WWL-TV4 New Orleans on Judicial Junketeering

Dozens of La. Judges Spend Public Money at Luxury Resorts

By Mike Perlstein

NEW ORLEANS — The Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort on Florida’s gulf coast features tennis courts, swimming pools, four golf courses and more than 20 restaurants.

And for one week every summer, it features dozens of Louisiana judges and court employees. It’s all part of an annual ritual: spending public money at out-of-state resorts for continuing legal education seminars.

Dozens of La. judges spend public money at luxury resorts

The Destin, Fla., trip, where judges have been mixing education and relaxation for decades, is so popular on the calendars of the New Orleans courts that many are practically closed for business during that week every summer.

Following this year’s Destin conference, sponsored by the Louisiana Bar Association, WWL-TV requested attendance and expense records from each of the New Orleans courts.

The records show that 50 New Orleans judges, court officials and employees attended the June conference at a cost of more than $100,000. The precise dollar amount was unavailable because some courts did provide complete records.

“The fact that public funds can be used for something like that is, I think, a disgrace to Louisiana and undermines confidence in the judiciary,” said Rafael Goyeneche, a longtime critic of the practice.

Goyeneche noted that in addition to the mass attendance by the local judges, many bring wives or kids, sometimes for a week or more.

“They’ve basically created this judicial pork fund that allows judges to waste public dollars on, essentially, state-funded family vacations,” he said.

“They’ve basically created this judicial pork fund that allows judges to waste public dollars on, essentially, state-funded family vacations”
Rafael Goyeneche

The rules for continuing legal education for judges are set by the Louisiana Supreme Court. In fact, the high court mandates that judges obtain at least 12.5 CLE hours each year, and a committee established by the court publishes a long list of approved CLEs on its website.

What is not so well known is that the Louisiana Supreme Court reimburses judges up to $5,000 annually for CLE travel and expenses. For the current fiscal year, that comes to more than $1.5 million that is appropriated by the state for the judges’ mandated legal training.

Individual expense guidelines also are set by the Louisiana Supreme Court, including transportation costs, $118 a day for per diem and – for this summer’s Destin trip – up to $2,200 for a week’s lodging.

According to records of the 2015 conference, every court in New Orleans was represented. For some of the courts, more than half the bench was at the beach that week.

Three out of the four judges from each of Municipal and Traffic courts attended, the records show. For Juvenile Court, it was three out of six judges; Criminal Court, five out of 14; Civil Court, three out of 14. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, which oversees the local courts in New Orleans, sent seven out of 12 judges, their records show.

But the largest contingent, by far, was from the Louisiana Supreme Court itself. The high court was represented in Destin by five out of seven justices, along with 17 court employees.

None of the courts contacted by WWL-TV would provide a representative for an interview, but several courts said they are merely following requirements set by the Supreme Court.

Kern Reese, chief judge of Civil District Court, sent this statement:

“The Louisiana Supreme Court requires that all state judges receive at least 12.5 hours of continuing legal education on an annual basis. The Supreme Court limits the amount of money a judge may spend on travel and has restrictions on where a judge may travel. The Judges of Orleans Parish Civil District Court and First and Second City Courts comply with these rules. It is patently disingenuous for anyone to imply that our judges have in any way done something illegal or unethical. ”

The annual bar conference in Destin represents just a fraction of the total public CLE travel expenses allowed by the high court. Another provision set by the court allows judges to spend an additional $10,000 from their own court funds, a law liberally used by many local judges throughout the year.

For example, less than a month after the Destin trip, even more public money was spent by New Orleans officials at Casa de Campo Resort in the Dominican Republic. Held by a non-profit organization called CLE of Louisiana, the trip maintains the group’s yearly tradition of exotic destinations such as Jamaica, Panama and Puerto Rico.

Who went to the Dominican Republic conference? Records show that three civil court judges – Kern Reese, Paula Brown and Angelique Reed – attended, as did two of the city’s part-time traffic court judges – Steven Jupiter and Herbert Cade.

The judges did not respond to calls for comment, but another justice system official who attended both Destin and the Dominican Republic conferences defended his travel.

Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell said, “Sometimes getting away, or getting away from the atmosphere you’re in the whole year, it helps.”

While Morrell spent public money to attend, he said reached into his own pocket to bring along his wife, former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. Morrell also noted that he didn’t participate in the polo or golf amenities, both featured as specialties at Casa de Campo.

“I don’t know anything about polo. I didn’t play golf. But as far as expenses, I don’t see where it’s any more expensive than Jamaica or Puerto Rico or any of these other places,” Morrell said.

He also defended bringing his wife.

“You could call it a family vacation, but I’m there because I’m interested in what’s going on,” Morrell said. “My wife went there because she wanted to accompany me and relax also.”

So how are these foreign trips are possible when the Supreme Court prohibits spending public money on “international travel?” Because at the same time, in its written regulations, the court doesn’t consider Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America to be international travel.

“They’re interpreting local travel that, or international travel, in a way that defies logic and all geography lessons I’ve ever been exposed to,” Goyeneche said.

Morrell was one of two New Orleans justice system officials who went to both Destin and the Dominican Republic conferences, according to the records. The other was Traffic Court Judge Herbert Cade.

“They’re interpreting local travel that, or international travel, in a way that defies logic and all geography lessons I’ve ever been exposed to”

Cade was not made available for an interview, but a Traffic Court spokesperson wrote in an email that Cade did not collect any per diem for Destin, and has not been reimbursed for the Dominican Republic trip. Cade and the court did not indicate whether he plans to seek additional reimbursement.

Despite the attendance by Morrell and Cade at both summer trips, neither official was required to get any CLE hours because of their age. The Supreme Court regulations exempt all attorneys over 65.

Goyeneche said he holds the Louisiana Supreme Court primarily to blame for the free-wheeling culture of CLE travel.

“I think that the culture of judicial abuse with respect to this travel was and is being maintained by the Louisiana Supreme Court,” he said. “Unless and until the Supreme Court is willing to govern themselves and also their subordinate judges, we’re going to continue to see this wasteful and abusive use of public dollars.”

There is an alternative to the judges spending public money going to the beach and exotic Caribbean resorts. Dozens of CLE conferences are held throughout the year in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and elsewhere in Louisiana.

Retired Criminal Court Judge Calvin Johnson attended many out-of-state CLEs, something he said he would not have done if it weren’t for allowances by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

“It isn’t a prudent use of public dollars because Louisiana is approaching going broke, Johnson said. “The Supreme Court, of course, could dictate how those moneys are spent, what those courts beneath them can and can’t do with the money. But that’s a decision they’d have to make.”

Another retired Criminal Court judge, Terry Alarcon, logged all of his CLE hours locally.

“Obviously, you can stay local and get it all done,” said Alarcon, who previously served as chief judge. “We would have general discussion about budgetary constraints, and I was always concerned about the expenses….With our limited resources, I would always rather upgrade my courtroom and make sure my court reporters and my staff had the best equipment. But each judge is an individual elected official making their own decisions.”

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2 Responses to “WWL-TV4 New Orleans on Judicial Junketeering”

  1. Sickandtiredofit Says:

    If you make the rules you can do what you want to,don’t worry about the little man.

  2. Kirby Campbell Says:

    Why doesn’t anyone report about the North Louisiana judges, DA’s and all their employees and spouses who go on these junkets? Now that Ken Booth is in Arizona, you never see any good investigative reporting anymore.

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