Orleans judge issues public apology, pledges to repay court fund for allegedly improper benefits _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- Criminal District Court Chief Judge Camille Buras.

Alongside used car ads and legal notices that appeared in a New Orleans newspaper one day last month was an unusual mea culpa, courtesy of an Orleans Parish judge.

“I, Camille Buras, publicly apologize for my past receipt of certain employment benefits paid to me or on my behalf at public expense since my taking office as a judge of the Orleans Criminal District Court, benefits which I ended in 2012,” read the June 14 notice in The Times-Picayune.

“Additionally,” it continued, “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 and benefits to the Judicial Expense Fund of the court.”

Approached in a courthouse hallway, Buras declined to utter a word when asked about the notice.

The court’s judicial administrator, Rob Kazik, also declined to comment on the published apology.

The notice appears to be part of a bargain Buras reached with the state Judiciary Commission to resolve allegations from three years ago that she, along with almost every other judge who sat on the Criminal Court bench at that time, had illegally siphoned more than half a million dollars in fines and fees collected from criminal defendants to pad their insurance benefits.

The commission acts in secret until it makes a recommendation to the Louisiana Supreme Court for censure, suspension or removal of a state judge, under the court’s rules.

Clare Fiasconaro, counsel for the commission, said, “I can’t tell you one way or the other” about any actions involving Orleans judges over supplemental insurance payments.

A controversy over those benefits dogged the court’s judges beginning in 2011 and continuing through much of 2013.

A November 2012 report by state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office found that “contrary to state law,” the Criminal District Court judges improperly spent $637,000 on added insurance benefits over those three years, although the practice dated back at least two decades.

The report pointed out similar missteps in Orleans Parish Civil District Court and city courts in New Orleans, to the tune of nearly $200,000.

A nonprofit criminal justice watchdog group, the Metropolitan Crime Commission, had earlier questioned the judges’ spending and pressed for an audit. The controversy reached full throttle in 2011, when District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro fired off a letter to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office, arguing that the judges were guilty of malfeasance and gross misconduct.

In his Aug. 4, 2011, letter, Cannizzaro urged Caldwell to launch “any prosecution warranted under the circumstance,” adding that the judges should be subject to removal from office.

At the same time, Cannizzaro acknowledged he had received similar benefits when he sat for 17 years on the Criminal Court bench.

Within a few months, Caldwell’s office announced it had launched a probe, but in early 2013 it told the Louisiana Supreme Court it wouldn’t pursue action, citing a concern over the separation of powers.

Asked this week about the public apology from Buras, Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Caldwell’s office, said, “As far as I am aware, this does not involve our office.”

It’s unclear whether any of the other judges on the bench who benefited from the added insurance have posted similar apologies, voluntarily or under pressure.

Kazik said none of the other judges have paid anything back to the court fund.

Just how much Buras may have received and agreed to repay was uncertain. Kazik declined to provide those figures.

Under heavy fire, the Criminal District Court judges in 2012 agreed — some more reluctantly than others — to give up the bonus insurance. Buras, who was chief judge amid much of the controversy, was among the first to agree.

State law prohibits judges from taking “directly or indirectly, any additional salary, compensation, emolument or benefit from the state or any of its political subdivisions” beyond their statutory salaries. Among the exceptions are payment of premiums for insurance programs, but only at the same rate paid for other state employees.

The New Orleans courts consistently balked over second-guessing of their spending, and the Criminal court judges cited federal laws protecting personal medical information in refusing to divulge details of the insurance spending. In response to a lawsuit filed by The Times-Picayune and WVUE-TV, the court in April 2013 turned over a stack of partially redacted records on the dubious spending.

Several judges at the time said they were handed a stack of papers when they assumed office and signed up for what was available, never questioning whether it was legal.

Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche praised Buras for her apology and her decision to reimburse the fund.

“Once they were aware this was an improper use of public funds and that they were receiving benefits above and beyond what the law provided for them to receive, they had an ethical responsibility to pay the money back,” Goyeneche said. “To Camille Buras’ credit, I’ve always believed she’s an honorable and ethical judge, and I respect what she’s done. It took courage. It’s a great example of leadership and judicial integrity.”

Other judges shied away from comment this week on Buras’ newspaper notice or whether they too were being asked to repay the fund.

Along with Buras, seven of the dozen other Criminal District Court judges who were serving when the controversy erupted still sit on the court’s bench.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.