Lee Zurik Investigation: Public pays for judge's beach trip, weeks before he retires

Traffic Court Judge Ronald Sholes
Traffic Court Judge Ronald Sholes
An image from CLE of Louisiana's web site, including an announcement of the Panama trip
An image from CLE of Louisiana's web site, including an announcement of the Panama trip

Long-time New Orleans Judge Ronald Sholes will retire at the end of this month. But weeks before he steps down as a traffic court judge, the public paid for him to attend a continuing legal education seminar, or CLE, out of town.

Take a look at a calendar - the CLE started on July 11, ended on July 18, and Sholes will retire less than two weeks later, on July 31.

And we're not talking about a CLE in New Orleans, or even the Gulf Coast. You, the public, paid for Judge Sholes to visit Panama City – not Panama City, Florida, but the capital of the Republic of Panama, in Central America, 1,600 miles away from New Orleans.

"Question is a question of judgment and good faith," says Tulane law professor Joel Friedman. "I just don't understand why a judge, who knows they're going to retire weeks after the CLE program, would go to a CLE program. It couldn't possibly be to help them do their job, because he's announced he is going to retire."

Sholes billed the public for the $750 CLE registration and $1,300 for the hotel room.

Metropolitan Crime Commission chief Rafael Goyeneche says, "This is a judge that's announced his retirement. And literally on the eve of him leaving office, he is availing himself of continuing education, not just to maybe go to a seminar in town, but going to a foreign country, which is basically a paid vacation at taxpayer expense. It's inappropriate, and I think that it undermines the public confidence in the judiciary."

We toured the photo gallery of the hotel, the Westin Playa Bonita Panama. Google Reviews gives the hotel 4.8 out of 5 stars.

By the way, the CLE offered two different room rates for attendees: $213 a night for a green view room, $268 for an ocean view. Judge Sholes chose the ocean view, the more expensive room.

"This is basically milking the system," says Goyeneche.

But there's more.

A New Orleans-based group called CLE of Louisiana organized the Panama trip. We found the schedule online.

We noticed many recognizable names speaking: attorney Roy Rodney, Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, state Rep. Walt Leger (D-New Orleans) and city Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

On most days, the schedule shows only three hours of seminars, all in the morning. The rest of the time was apparently free for participants.

The schedule shows Sunday as an even shorter day, just a 1-hour, 15-minute session - a legislative update - that ended the day's events at 10:15 in the morning. Goyeneche says, "He's booking airfare, ocean front hotel rooms and going to a conference that's a couple of hours a day - so it doesn't get in the way of his sightseeing and beach activities."

The topics of the seminar ranged from the BP settlement to human trafficking. Friedman says, "None of these topics are relevant to a traffic judge. Traffic courts are factual matters... who ran the red light, was the speedometer correct."

That's why our law professor questions why a traffic judge would even attend this CLE.

"With all due respect to the judge, I'm guessing he didn't choose to go to the CLE program to expand the universe of his knowledge about class actions and evidentiary matters to help him for the next 10 days as a traffic court judge," Friedman says.

The state Supreme Court doesn't require judges and attorneys to travel, but does make them attend a CLE every year.

When we ask Goyeneche where he does his CLE's, he tells us, "At the Hilton on Canal Street, locally. Most people go locally. Some that are maybe a little more adventurous and maybe have some more resources, they may go to Florida. But very few people are going to go on these types of junkets. And if he had to pay for it himself, it's unlikely that he would."

While he's been a traffic judge, Sholes has continued to work as an attorney, too, for the second-largest law firm in the state, Adams and Reese. He'll stay there after his retirement as judge.

But to help fulfill his continuing legal education for this year, the law firm didn't pay this bill. Instead, he charged it on his public credit card, just weeks before his retirement.

Friedman tells us, "The thing that's the most irksome about this, and that just flies in your face, is this sort of bold statement that, 'Well, I can do it, I'm retiring, I'm entitled, I'm entitled to this because I put in a lot of years, it's kind of a going-away present.' Well, if his friends want to give him a going-away present, that's fine. But the taxpayers should not be giving him a going-away present."

Right now, the court has only paid for the CLE registration and hotel. He hasn't submitted any receipts for his flight or meals.

The court's judicial administrator says the public will also pay for that, if the judge hasn't spent more than $6,500 in travel this year. When we asked how much he has spent in 2013, the administrator told us that, up to today, Sholes has spent $5,200. So the court would be able to cover his meal and flight costs to Panama.