A man who admitted stealing $511,000 from Kenner after running an auction for the city must pay back nearly $262,000, more than three times the restitution initially set in the case, a Jefferson Parish judge ruled Wednesday.
James Durham, 44, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to felony theft, was originally ordered to pay back just $80,000 by since-retired 24th Judicial District Court Judge Ross LaDart.
LaDart said making Durham pay back the full amount would be excessive, considering that he supported his five children while making an unsteady living buying and selling surplus government property.
Also, he noted, Durham had been ordered to pay $300,000 in restitution in an unrelated case in Mississippi.
“Mississippi just got to his wallet before this court will,” LaDart ruled.
But in October, a state 5th Circuit Court of Appeal panel ruled that LaDart had abused his discretion by ordering Durham to pay “a sum considerably lower than the actual monetary loss to Kenner.”
The appellate panel ordered LaDart’s successor, Judge Danyelle Taylor, to set a more reasonable restitution figure for the city, and she set it at $261,729 during a hearing Wednesday.
Taylor said she arrived at that figure in part because Durham’s bank in Mississippi at one point seized about $250,000 of the auction money that had been stolen from Kenner and put in escrow.
According to Durham’s attorney, Arthur “Buddy” Lemann III, the bank seized the money for itself when it learned Durham was facing a lawsuit from an individual investor.
The judge portrayed that action as “wrongful,” and the restitution she set was the amount of the money stolen by Durham that was not seized by the bank.
Taylor ordered Durham to pay the restitution in monthly installments of $1,800. She also scheduled an Oct. 20 hearing to review Durham’s financial situation and make any needed adjustments.
Lemann urged Taylor to avoid setting a restitution amount that was too high, saying his client couldn’t afford to pay back much more than previously ordered.
On the other side, prosecutor Seth Shute objected to the amount set by Taylor as too little.
Mississippi-based Durham Auctions — owned by Durham and his father, Donald Durham — collected the auction money at the center of the case by selling mobile trailers, computers, desks and other items seized during drug investigations in Kenner, but the city was never given the funds.
The Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office charged the Durhams with theft, though LaDart dismissed the case against the father when it was set for trial in February 2014.
LaDart then agreed to recess the trial for the younger Durham, who was serving parole on an unrelated conviction for writing worthless checks. A few months later, after his parole ended, Durham came back in front of LaDart to plead guilty, getting five years of probation while being told to make restitution of $80,000.
Kenner filed a federal civil lawsuit against the Durhams, their company and their bank in an attempt to recover as much of the stolen money as possible.
But, after the Durhams’ company declared bankruptcy, the city settled the litigation for only $80,000, which officials said was not enough even to cover the legal fees Kenner incurred.