Zurik: Judicial wedding fees could draw IRS, high court probes
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A local judge told the state's supreme court she made less than $25,000 in cash officiating weddings. But new information FOX 8 received from the state suggests she could have earned almost double that amount.
In one year, one New Orleans judge may have charged a $100 wedding fee 473 times, pocketing as much as $47,300 in cash.
"At a minimum," Tulane law professor Joel Friedman says of that last figure. "And it's much more than this... it's unseemly."
"Do the math," suggests Patrick Lynch, a certified public accountant with the firm Rogers, Lynch and Associates and another frequent analyst on FOX 8 investigations. "It's beyond frustration."
Our investigation has revealed judges in New Orleans' First and Second City Courts overcharged couples for their weddings.
The law says the judge can charge $5.00 for a wedding. But at the Algiers courthouse, Judge Teena Anderson-Trahan made couples pay $100.
Legal experts say the law also requires the judges to deposit that money into the court's bank account. But instead the judges kept the money as extra income.
"For a judge to say, i don't know the law that regulates my job as a judge - either they're not telling the truth or, equally bad, maybe worse, they're ignorant of the law that regulates their position," Friedman tells us.
The state keeps a copy of every marriage license - on it, the officiant and the location and time of the wedding.
The state's Vital Records Office sent us a spreadsheet that shows how many weddings each city court judge presided over the past few years. It shows, in 2015, Second City Court Judge Teena Anderson-Trahan officiated 415 weddings; in 2016, 463. And last year: 473 weddings.
"Now we have a real problem," Friedman warns, for two reasons.
Each year, Judge Anderson-Trahan files a financial disclosure statement with the La. Supreme Court. On it, she signs a sworn statement that the information is true and correct. Anderson-Trahan claimed to make between $5,000 and $25,000 officiating weddings. Again, she charged $100 a wedding, and last year officiated 473, netting as much as $47,000.
Friedman says that likely means she either didn't keep all of the money, performed 223 free weddings or misreported her earnings to the Supreme Court.
"She may be not only understating it on her judicial ethics form," he says, "she may be also understating it on her income tax form - because this is clearly compensation that has to be declared as income on your federal income tax and your state income tax."
Friedman calls that "a big-time felony." And that could be her other problem, if Anderson-Trahan did in fact earn that much money and didn't alert the Supreme Court of the full amount.
Our accounting expert questions whether the judge could be underreporting her earnings to the Internal Revenue Service.
"The implication is, if she hasn't, then she's subject to a substantial underpayment penalty and could possibly face civil and criminal fraud," Lynch warns.
We asked Anderson-Trahan if she shared any of the wedding money with office staff, if she waived any wedding fees and how much money she reported to the IRS for wedding income. She refused to comment.
Lynch wants the IRS and state authorities, including the La. Supreme Court, to investigate. "And the question I'm going to ask as a taxpayer," he says, "where is the oversight? What are they doing to oversee this?"
The data provided by the state shows all four judges stopped officiating weddings in mid-May. In fact, two judges officiated their last wedding the day our story aired; not one has married a couple since.
"It's an admission they shouldn't have been doing it in the first place," Friedman says.
Over six years, Judge Teena Anderson-Trahan may have collected as much as $219,000 in cash - money that Joel Friedman says she should return to the court and the couples, where the law says that money belongs.
"They should not be allowed to keep money that they now would admit they received in violation of law," Friedman insists, "even though they would allege they didn't realize it was in violation of law. And these are judges saying, gee, I didn't know the law."
We have repeatedly asked Judge Anderson-Trahan for an on-camera interview, and even asked her several questions by email. But, via her spokesperson, she has rejected our requests each time.
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