FOX 8, Times-Picayune sue Criminal District Court
FOX 8 News and the Times-Picayune are suing the judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, alleging that the judges have refused to hand over public records.
The lawsuit names the chief judge of Orleans Criminal Court, Camille Buras, and judicial administrator Robert Kazik as defendants.
On December 10, 2012, FOX 8 requested documents relating to life insurance policies purchased with money from the Judicial Expense Fund -- that's a fund controlled by the judges. Times-Picayune reporter John Simmerman requested similar records on January 2 of this year.
"These particular judges, in addition to their state benefits, used judicial expense funds to purchase supplemental coverages, whole life insurance policies, in some cases naming even their family members as their beneficiaries, says FOX 8 and Times-Picayune attorney Lori Mince.
According to a legislative audit from last year, the judges purchased 85 life insurance policies.
In fact all 13 judges carried multiple policies. After the auditor started looking, the policies were canceled -- the judges paid the court back $72,000. That money came from refunded premiums, cash surrender value and interest.
After the audit, we wanted to find out more about the policies. We wanted to find out who paid back the court, and whether any judges failed to do so. They have been fighting the release of the records.
"What they are refusing to do is to let the public see all of the details, to let the public see exactly what policies they were buying, and for who and how much they cost, who are the beneficiaries," says Mince.
The judges of Criminal Court have said the records are not public. They claim many are protected because they contain medical information.
Lori Mince disagrees. "Those exemptions don't apply here, because what we're asking to see is what kind of life insurance policies did you buy, how much did they cost, who did you name as the beneficiaries on those policies, and when you cashed them in, how much money did you get back and refund to court," she says. "That's not health records, that's not medical information, and it's not exempt."
It's important to note that the court is not the beneficiary of these life insurance policies. The legislative auditor pointed out that, by purchasing life insurance, "It appears the judges expended funds in violation of the Louisiana Constitution which prohibits the donation of public funds."
Mince says, "We have judges who are buying whole life policies that are essentially side investments for them. And we know that they are essentially side investments because they have cash-in values on them."
The lawsuit has been assigned to Orleans Civil District Court Judge Ethel Julian.
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