New Orleans — A review of city-owned take-home cars for the judges and clerk of New Orleans Traffic Court found multiple violations of state and local laws, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said.
Judges Robert Jones, Ronald Sholes and Mark Shea and court clerk Noel Cassanova each had a blue light in their cars, which appears to violate state and local law since none of the court employees is a law enforcement officer. Additionally, Jones had a clear plastic cover over his license plate that partially obscured it, which is another violation of state and local law.
The report also found that most of the vehicles were sometimes used by them for personal purposes. Additionally, Jones and Sholes failed to report accidents or damage to their city-owned vehicles.
Cassanova and each of the judges, except for Sholes, agreed to be interviewed for the report, Quatrevaux said. Attempts by The Advocate to contact Sholes were unsuccessful.
The consensus among the court employees when asked why they had take-home cars was that it was part of the job.
The five take-home vehicles were purchased between 2007 and 2011 and cost $152,556. They were paid for with money from the Judicial Expense Fund and are titled to the city, which also insures and fuels them.
“The judges said that they did not respond to emergencies and regarded the cars as a historical benefit,” Quatrevaux wrote in a prepared statement. “The city paid $152,000 to buy them and thousands more to repair collision damage.
“These perks are unnecessary and unaffordable.”
In regard to Jones’ license plate cover, he told the IG’s office that a constable purchased it from Wal-Mart and put it over the plate. He said he did not think it was designed to block traffic cameras from seeing the plate number and removed the cover only after a WWL-TV reporter raised questions about it.
However, Jones told the TV station that the city gave him the car with the cover already on the plate.
City policy allows take-home cars to be assigned only to full-time city employees who need to respond regularly to city business during non-traditional working hours to perform duties related to the job. While there is some personal use permitted if running a brief errand, for example, take-home cars should not otherwise be used for personal business.
The IG’s office found that each vehicle was driven thousands of miles a year over and above the commuting distance between each employee’s residence and the court building.
Jones said he does not have a personal car, so he uses his city vehicle for all personal and business needs. His live-in girlfriend also uses the vehicle at times, he told the IG’s office.
In regard to emergency responses that might require a city car, Cade, Jones and Shea each said they have never had to respond to an emergency, nor has Cassanova. Each man said he only rarely has to go to the court building during off hours.
While the city requires that all accidents or incidents that damage city-owned vehicles should be reported to the city within one day, there were times the court employees failed to follow that rule.
Jones had at least three instances where he had damage repaired that he did not report. The cost of the repairs combined was about $6,400. Sholes had at least three instances where he had repairs made that cost a combined $4,900.
Cassanova said he “totaled” his old city vehicle but did report that to the city. He said nothing has happened to his new vehicle.
Neither Cade nor Shea ever had any accidents or damage to their vehicles, the IG said.
While the vehicles were paid for with judicial expense dollars, Sholes take-home Ford Expedition was upgraded to an Eddie Bauer Edition. The SUV cost $41,376, and a handwritten note filed in September 2007 claimed Sholes would pay the $4,657 difference for the upgrade.
The IG’s office, however, could find no documentation proving he ever made the payment. Quatrevaux said his office was unable to figure out if the amount was ever paid since Sholes declined to speak to investigators.