Out to Lunch: Pricey meals for jurors, court staff at Orleans Criminal Court

Orleans Parish Criminal Court
Orleans Parish Criminal Court

If you've ever served on a jury, you've most likely been treated to lunch. Sometimes it's sandwiches, other times burgers. But a FOX 8 investigation into court records at Orleans Parish Criminal Court revealed jurors there are eating far better than most, and court staff are eating for free -- all at the expense of taxpayers.

If you live in Orleans Parish, there's a good chance you've been inside the Criminal District Court.  It's one of the busiest in the state, holding an average of 300 jury trials a year. If you make it onto a jury, it can be a long process.

But there's one thing you can count on -- you're most likely going to get a good meal. We found that jurors are eating trout dishes, veal parmesan, and even rib-eye steaks.

Former Chief Judge Calvin Johnson served on the bench at Orleans Criminal Court for 17 years. He retired in 2008. "You're trying to keep people happy in terms of the work you're requiring them to do," Johnson said.

In addition to the food ordered for jurors, Johnson says trial judges, their court staff, sheriff's deputies who monitor the courtroom and even attorneys for both sides eat for free as well.

"The way the court operates, you have to have the people contained. The judge needs to be present during the lunch hour, the court staff needs to be present during the lunch hour, lawyers need to be present during the lunch hour," Johnson explained.

According to records reviewed by FOX 8 News, the court spent a total of over $100,000 annually, from 2010 through 2012, buying lunches for juries and all the court staff.

So what's the official policy in place for purchasing the lunches? We found that there is none.

"Back when I was there," Johnson commented, "we didn't have limitations, I don't think. I don't remember limitations on lunch spending and such."

There currently is no written policy stating where lunches must be ordered from or how much a judge can spend.

We pulled receipts from lunches over the past three years. Among the restaurants most ordered from were Mandina's, Zea on St. Charles, the House of Blues, and Sammy's Food Service. Many bills totaled $300, $400 and $500 a day.

One receipt we pulled is from a jury trial held in Chief Judge Camille Buras' courtroom in January of 2010. Lunch was ordered from Mandina's for the 14 jurors, the judge and 15 others. Someone named "Angie" listed under court room personnel ordered a club sandwich and gumbo totaling almost $20. A person listed as "Kuhn" ordered an almost $18 plate.  And "Lisa" ordered shrimp gumbo, totaling $30.

"A $30 gumbo to me doesn't pass the eyeball test. Something's wrong with that," said Raphael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. Goyeneche has spent decades working in and around Criminal Court.

"I worked in that system myself 30 years ago and the nicest meal I saw anyone get was a po-boy," Goyeneche said.

Although there is no written policy in place, during our investigation the court's judicial administrator, Robert Kazik, told us that he asked the judges to keep lunch prices to around $10 a person.

Kazik said he made this request a little more than a year ago. But receipts we saw, were dated after his request, show that didn't always happen.

In Judge Robin Pittman's courtroom in April of last year, five people ordered lunches over $20 a piece. Also in April, Judge Buras held a trial during which four people ordered lunches from Mandina's, costing over $22 a piece. In this case, none of those people were jurors -- they were either courtroom staff, attorneys or sheriff's deputies.

Looking at the receipts, Goyeneche commented, "There are some examples here that are outrageous. And I think that if the court has a rule, then those rules need to be enforced."

We attempted to ask the current judges about the money being spent on lunches, but Administrator Kazik said no sitting judges would speak to us about this.

Instead, Kazik offered up retired Judge Johnson.  After looking at the receipts we pulled, Johnson agreed the judges are not sticking to that $10 limit, commenting, "To order a $25 lunch is obviously inappropriate."

Johnson did, however, defend the Criminal Court staff, saying, "When you add up what those people do on a daily basis back there, then you look at what they do... based on that perspective, then, what they do has some value. It has more value than a $10 lunch or a $15 lunch."

While the staff may be working efficiently, Goyeneche says that doesn't mean the price of their meals has to be double the limit the judicial administrator suggested. "They're entitled, I think to be fed, but they don't have to get fat and they don't have to pick the most expensive items on the menu."

Those $30 dishes of gumbo and $27 pastas are adding up -- and it's not as if the court is flush with cash. Each year the court asks the City Council for money for jury expenses -- expenses that include paying the jurors for their service, paying for their parking, meals and other minor costs associated with jury service.

"This type of thing is going to make anybody, particularly the city that has a financial problem to fund all of the different things, say, 'You know what, maybe the court doesn't need all of the money that we've giving them,'" said Goyeneche.

Since judges are allowed to decide where they want to order lunch from and basically let jurors and their staff have free rein with the menus, Goyeneche suggests it's time to crack down, saying, "They need to manage it and make sure everybody on their staff realizes that you can't abuse this or take advantage of this."

Watch FOX 8 News at 10 Tuesday night, May 7, 2013 for Part 2 of this special investigation.