Out to Lunch: Councilwoman, judge react to investigation at Criminal Court

A New Orleans city councilwoman speaks out about the FOX 8 Investigates report that revealed expensive meals that have been purchased in recent years for judges, juries and court staff at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

It's a policy at Criminal District Court to buy lunch for juries serving on trials. There are roughly 300 trials each year at Tulane and Broad, making it  one of the busiest courts in the state.

In addition to meals for jurors, the court also has been shelling out cash to buy food for the judges that preside over each trial, the judge's staff in the courtroom, lawyers for each side and even the sheriff's deputies who oversee the courtroom.

Retired Judge Calvin Johnson explains why, saying, "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."

Over the past three years, the court has spent over $100,000 annually for those meals. We're not talking about burgers and chicken sandwiches -- receipts we pulled from 2010 through 2012 show jurors and court staff were eating very well, dining on veal parmesan, pork dinners, racks of ribs and more.

"To order a $25 lunch is obviously inappropriate," Johnson said, looking at the receipts.

The court has other expenses, too. It must pay jurors for their service and for their parking, among other minor costs. The money comes from taxpayers, given to the court each year by the New Orleans City Council.

"I think with any expenditure, especially right now, budget crunches we have throughout the city, we have to be very, very careful of every single expenditure," said Council Vice-President Stacy Head.

Each year, the council allocates money to the various city departments and entities, including Criminal District Court. It can be a difficult task, Head says, because of the current budget crisis. The court sends a representative to the budget hearings held at City Hall to lobby for the amount of money they say they need.

In 2010, the court asked for $210,000 to spend for jury expenses; it received $171,000. The next year, the court upped its request, asking for $360,000. Again, it didn't receive all that it wanted, only getting $133,000. In 2012, the court again asked for $360,000, this time getting $316,000.

But records we found show Criminal Court sometimes spent more money than it was allocated for all jury expenses on just food.

"The court isn't doing a good enough job in policing itself, making sure its resources and finances are being using appropriately," said Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

Looking at restaurant receipts from the past three years, we found a $30 dish of gumbo that was purchased and a $27 plate of pasta. The court's judicial administrator initially told FOX 8 that a little more than a year ago, he asked the judges to keep lunch prices to around $10 a person. But we pulled receipts from after that time, showing that didn't always happen.

After our first story aired Monday night, Administrator Robert Kazik corrected himself, saying the date on that directive was actually July 2012. In fact, after our story aired, Chief Judge Camille Buras drafted a letter to City Council President Jackie Clarkson, saying that back in July the court asked certain restaurants who provide lunches to jurors and court staff to develop a menu that would bring costs down to around $10 a meal. Again, this information was never given to FOX 8 until Tuesday, the day after our initial story aired.

When Councilwoman Head looked at receipts from meals purchased before that $10 limit went into place, she said she found the prices surprising, given what she's heard from court officials in the past.

"I've been in those budget meeting discussions, I've been in those hearings where Criminal Court has come to us and said, 'If you don't give us this money, we're not going to be able to feed the jurors,'" Head said. "That really put us in a difficult position for the last few years because we wanted to make sure the jurors did get lunch. Now that I'm seeing some of the lunches cost $24, $25, $26... that's more than is necessary."

Over the past three years, the court has had to dip into its Judicial Expense Fund to help pay for meals. The fund is made up of fines and fees paid by defendants.

Goyeneche explains, "Judicial Expense Fund can be used for anything necessary to the operations of the court. It may be buying furniture for the judges, it may be sending the judges on continuing legal education trips."

There's no way for us to tell how much money is in that fund. The court's judicial administrator tells FOX 8 the numbers constantly fluctuate.

Retired Judge Johnson says, now that misdemeanor cases have been moved to Municipal Court, everything has changed. "That money has declined in the last few years because of the way the court operates," Johnson said.

That is one of the reasons why Head says it's so important that the judges actually monitor how much is being spent on lunches. Head says the city can't provide an endless flow of cash to Criminal Court. In fact, Head says, come budget hearing time this fall she plans to address this issue with the judges directly, saying, "I suspect it will come up again and I hope that they will do what I think the council will ask them to do, which is to be more efficient with their jury lunch dollars."

Judge Robin Pittman, who was mentioned in Monday night's report, reached out to FOX 8 Tuesday to say that she was not in violation of the $10 meal limit, as it didn't go into effect until July, not a few months earlier as we were initially told by the judicial administrator. Pittman goes on to say that, since that rule went into effect, she's stopped buying lunches for herself and staff and only buys meals for the jurors in an effort to save money.