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Public money is being used to pay for judges at Criminal District Court to travel around the country - and even abroad.
Imagine being able to travel to lavish destinations like the sandy beaches of Florida or the mountains of Montana without having to pay for it out of your own pocket. The 13 judges at Criminal District Court are doing just that.
"This is something that's been abused historically in Louisiana and it is fiscally irresponsible," says Rafael Goyeneche, who heads the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Despite a constant need to tighten the budget, the judges spent more than $75,000 in that time period for legal education conferences and other out-of-town trips. Most the money came from the court's judicial expense fund, which is collected from fines and fees that court imposes.
Most of the trips taken were for conferences where judges could gain their continuing legal education, or CLE, credits.
Rules set forth by the Louisiana Supreme Court require judges to attend a minimum of 12.5 hours of CLE credits each year.
"That's an example of a judge working the system, so they're using that money to yes, get their CLE credits, but in some instances, they're only getting one or two hours. They're also getting to fly to another city and then stay for a couple of days, and that conference may be for only a half or day or so. Basically, they're making a family vacation of something that's supposed to be a learning experience," says Goyeneche.
Some of the judges spent a lot more than others. The top two spenders at Criminal District Court are judges Arthur Hunter and Frank Marullo. Hunter billed the court for more than $15,000, while Marullo spent more than $11,000.
Those numbers become even more staggering when you compare them to the travel expenses of Judge Karen Herman, who spent a total of $225 over that same period.
"There are conferences almost every month in New Orleans and there will be conferences every week within driving distance in Louisiana where these judges can get this," says Goyeneche.
The majority of judges, though, traveled outside Louisiana.
Marullo took the most expensive trip in July of last year when he attended the 18th Annual CLE of Louisiana Conference in Panama City, Panama.
Court records show he stayed at the Westin Playa Bonita for eight nights, and even chose the more expensive "ocean view" room. The conference offered day and nighttime leisure activities for the judges, such as sightseeing excursions, cocktail hours on a party bus and even golf tournaments.
The trip cost $4,452.40, all of which was paid for by the court.
Then, in June of this year, records show Marullo attended the American Institute for Justice Conference in Whitefish, Montana. The court paid $3,888.40 for Marullo to stay at a luxurious European-style lodge just an hour drive from Glacier National Park.
"It's an improper use of public dollars in my opinion," says Goyeneche.
The most popular and one of the most expensive conferences is the Joint Summer School for Judges in Sandestin, Florida. It's a six-day seminar sponsored by the Louisiana Judicial College. The venue is the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.
Over the 18 month time period we investigated, nine of the 13 judges attended that conference at least once. Judges Hunter, Derbigny and Johnson traveled twice to Sandestin.
Goyeneche says despite the obvious costs to the court, taking multiple trips means less time on the bench, which has a trickle-down effect.
"You realize, it's not just the cost of the judges, it's the staff that has to be paid. It's the cost of keeping people in jail. It's the cost of people looking for closure. How do you put a dollar value on victims and witnesses that want a matter resolved in all of this?" says Goyeneche.
In the time evaluated, Criminal District Court judges traveled outside New Orleans for training and other conferences a total of 134 days. While the costs to the courts and the time away from the bench may seem excessive in some cases, none of the judges even came close to breaking the rules set forth by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The court, as it relates to travel, states, "No judge shall spend more than $15,000 in public funds, on a fiscal year basis, on fees, costs and expenses pertaining to attendance of conferences, conventions or seminars."
Goyeneche calls it a waste of money and says the Louisiana Supreme Court should do things differently.
"It would be much more cost effective if the Supreme Court would bring those speakers in to speak to dozens or hundreds of judges, rather than send dozens or hundreds of judges to other cities and in some cases, internationally, to continue their legal education," says Goyeneche.
But he worries change will never come.
"We'll be doing stories about them two decades from now, unless the Louisiana Supreme Court steps in and fixes this abuse of public power by the court," says Goyeneche.
Criminal District Court released the following statement:
"Many judges are invited and encouraged to travel and attend conferences that enhance court services, such as Drug Court and drug testing, Veterans Court and Re-entry Court and are often instructors as these seminars. Moreover, it is important to stay abreast on issues related to sentencing reform and advancements in court technology and court security. Many of the Criminal Court judges are voluntary members of these committees, and are asked to encourage their colleagues to participate in these important meetings and/or seminars."
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