The head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission applauds Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge Camille Buras for taking steps to repay courthouse funds that were used improperly to beef up her insurance benefits, something that was not permitted under state law.
In the courthouse at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street, fines and fees are part of the judicial process. But when it was exposed in recent years that funds from the courthouse's judicial expense fund were used to pay for Cadillac-level insurance coverage for sitting judges, there was outrage. FOX 8's Lee Zurik and the Times-Picayune filed suit to get courthouse records on judge's insurance purchases.
In light of that, Judge Camille Bureas recently ran a legal notice in the Times-Picayune apologizing for receiving certain employment benefits and stating that she would repay the money.
"Additionally, because of the public controversy my receipt of these benefits has caused, which cast doubt on the public trust in me as a judge and raised the appearance of impropriety, I have now begun repayment of the costs of benefits to the Judicial Expense Fund of the court," the judge's legal notice said.
"The advertisement in the newspaper recently is Judge Buras acknowledging that she was paying the money back from these supplemental benefits. I respect her doing that. It takes some courage; it's a difficult thing to do," said Rafael Goyeneche with the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Goyeneche knows the issue well. It was the MCC that alerted the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's office of the problem, and the MCC also requested an audit.
"It doesn't surprise me that she's doing the right thing," Goyeneche said. "What I don't know is what happened with respect to the rest of the court, but unfortunately, some of that information is shrouded in secrecy because of the La. Judicial Canons and the Louisiana Judicial Commission."
In 2012, the legislative auditor issued a scathing report stating that contrary to state law, it appeared that from Jan. 1, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2011, the judges at Orleans Criminal Court improperly used public funds totaling $637,367 to purchase supplemental and additional insurance benefits, including health, life and professional
"In 2011, there were 242 policies, an average of 18 policies per judge," Goyeneche said.
Goyeneche said there was a lot of redundancy in the types of policies that were being purchased with the courthouse funds.
"For disability, you can only be 100 percent disabled, and you can only receive 100 percent for your disability," he said. "Some of them had multiple disability policies."
"Camille Buras, who is the most honorable person that I know, did what she did, I think, as a sign of leadership and to try to get this thing behind everybody. I think it's over with, I don't think anybody should construe any bad acts by what happened," said FOX 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti.
Goyeneche believes the practice had been going on at the courthouse for decades.
"As I interviewed some of the judges that would talk to me, they explained to me that when they took the bench, they were told that those were the benefits that were available to them," he said.
And he said his organization uncovered problems in other venues.
"Years ago we documented an instance in Civil District Court where they were using their funds to employ what they termed a janitor, but was really an executive chef for the court," Goyeneche said.
Attempts to reach Buras for comment were unsuccessful.
The court's judicial administrator refused to say whether other judges have repaid the funds.