Out to Lunch: Pricey meals continue at Orleans Parish Criminal Court

Published: Jul. 9, 2013 at 2:50 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 29, 2016 at 8:56 PM CDT
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New Orleans, La. - For years, juries at Orleans Parish Criminal Court ate well, dining on things like veal parmesan, rib eyes, and roast pork dinner platters.

In May, we told you about the hundreds of dollars spent on meals for jury trials. In addition to jurors, judges and their staff also got in on the free food. In May, retired Chief Judge Calvin Johnson explained 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."

Some meals were reasonably priced at $10 or $12 each...but others, cost $20 and even $30.

The head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, Rafael Goyeneche says, "These types of abuses undermine the public's confidence.

After our initial story aired, one of the judge's contacted us to say that a rule was put into place last year, prohibiting jurors lunches from exceeding $10 a piece. The rule went into effect July 13th, 2012. The court's judicial administrator Robert Kazik said they even used special menus to help keep costs down.

So, we decided to see if the judges stuck to that $10 limit. Turns out, not all of them have. On some days, certain judges kept jurors meals to $10 a piece, but let their staff and others in the courtroom, order anything they choose, no matter the price. One example is in Judge Frank Marullo's courtroom on August 14th, 2012. Every juror ordered a meal under $10 but the law clerk, and three sheriff's deputies each got $18 meals consisting of gumbo and one other selection off the menu.

The head of the New Orleans Crime Coalition, Mike Cowan, says this is unacceptable. "It's a clear violation of the policy that they agreed to and I saw a copy of it in writing and again I would wonder if that $10 is good enough for the jurors, why wouldn't it be good enough for the other people involved?" Cowan said.

On other days, Marullo disregarded the $10 rule entirely. On October 17th, 2012, the meal prices for jurors and court staff ranged from $8.98 to $22 dollars a meal. That same month, Chief Judge Camille Buras held a trial and ordered lunch for 14 jurors, herself, and 14 others. One juror ordered a rib eye with french fries totaling $20 and 95 cents. A member of Buras' staff ordered an almost $19 trout. In fact, only three people out of 29 ordered meals less than $10. Then, in addition to all that food, eight puddings, six pies and six cakes were ordered. The sweets alone totaled $110. The total bill that day for the lunch from Mandina's...$537. Again, that was three months after Buras herself signed an order requiring lunches to be under $10.

"A judge passes a rule to govern themselves and they don't respect the process enough to follow and abide by those rules. That is fundamentally wrong," said Goyeneche.

It's important to point out that not all the judges are breaking this rule. Some are not only following the $10 limit for jurors meals...they're also refraining from ordering lunch for themselves and their staff, in an effort to save money. Cowan thinks this is a practice every judge should put into place saying, "I don't see why taxpayers would be paying for the lunch of the judge and the other people involved."

It's not just meals during jury trials that the judges are eating for free. At least once a month, the 13 judges gather for "en banc" meetings in which they discuss the business of the court. We reviewed receipts from the "en banc" meetings where the judges ordered lunch. Here's what we found…the judges sometimes ordered pans of food from Semolina's...other times cookies and sandwich trays from Rouses.

"I would wonder why professional people who are coming together for a meeting who are being paid a full time salary...would also be charging their meals," Cowan said.

On December 14th, 2012 the judges ordered $385 worth of food from Langenstein's. The judges dined on pies, pistolettes and $157 worth of meat and baked brie with pralines. In fact, the judges met three times that month ordering lunch each time...costing a total of $743.

Kazik said there's no policy in place for how much judges spend on food for these meetings. The "en banc" lunches are paid for with money from the court's judicial expense fund which is made up of fines and fees paid by defendants.

Goyeneche explains, "The U.S. Supreme Court has issued rulings saying that no judge can have a financial stake in the outcome of a case. Well, if the judges are receiving money only from individuals who plead guilty before them, they have a financial stake in the outcome of a case and if their financial stake is their stomach, and a free meal in this, these funds that historically have been paid by defendants to the judicial expense fund, have never seen any transparency, there is no accountability."

The court wouldn't even tell us how much money is in the account. Kazik says it fluctuates frequently.

The amount of money the court spends on lunches is relevant because for years, Criminal Court has asked the City Council for more and more money during budget hearings. In May, council member Stacy Head said, "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."

The City Council allocates a certain amount of taxpayer dollars, each year for jury expenses. As we previously reported, the court sometimes uses all of that money just on lunches and then has to dip into it's judicial expense fund to cover the rest of the costs.

On Wednesday, Chief Judge Camille Buras is due at City Hall to report to city council members about the status of the court's budget as it stands right now. Brad Cousins, the director of the watchdog group, Courtwatch Nola, says he expects the lunch issue will be addressed. "Given that the budget cycle is starting for the court and other criminal justice agencies, it certainly seems reasonable to ask the court to justify these expenses at a time that they're claiming to not have enough money," said Cousins.

If the judges aren't following the rules that they themselves passed, Michael Cowan says it'll ultimately be up to the public to hold the judges accountable saying, "In the end, what this is going to take is citizens paying serious attention in the election for judges that come up in 2014 and really pressing them on questions like insurance policies, expensive food."