Jefferson Parish's 2nd Justice Court

Jefferson Parish's 2nd Justice Court in Marrero, via Google

Suspected of feeding a six-figure gambling habit with public funds, an elected small claims court official on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish has been temporarily disqualified from performing his duties by the state Supreme Court.

Patrick Hale DeJean, the justice of the peace for Jefferson Parish's 2nd Justice Court, was indefinitely suspended with pay late last month after a Judiciary Commission investigation uncovered evidence suggesting he had withdrawn cash from his court's operating account — money partially derived from bank loans and wage garnishment payments received by the court — at a number of casinos in the region.

A report from the Judiciary Commission speculates that DeJean had a gambling problem and asserts that his conduct also has drawn the attention of the FBI and the Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office.

Neither agency has secured criminal charges against him, but the disqualification will remain in place at least until the Supreme Court decides what to do with DeJean, 38.

"It is undeniable that DeJean's apparent pattern of misusing and misappropriating these ... funds may pose a substantial threat of serious harm to the public and the administration of justice," the report says. "Unless immediate action is taken, it is highly likely that DeJean will continue to misappropriate garnishment payments, amongst other public funds."

DeJean, who has held his office since 2008, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. However, when speaking with investigators, he claimed he used the money in question for legitimate purposes, records show.

The document accuses DeJean of ordering that court-ordered wage garnishment payments be sent to the court instead of directly to the parties who were owed the garnishments, as legally required. He is accused of then sending those garnishments — almost $181,350 between August 2011 and September 2013 alone — to his court's operating account, instead of a separate escrow fund meant for such payments.

Meanwhile, between March 2012 and July 2013, DeJean took out three loans from First Bank & Trust, borrowing a total of $52,840 and putting it in the court's operating account, documents say.

To secure the loans, it is alleged, DeJean incorrectly described himself as a judge of the nonexistent 2nd District Court of Jefferson Parish, even though he is actually the justice of the peace for the 2nd Justice Court, whose jurisdiction encompasses most areas west of the Harvey Canal.

He also is accused of telling the bank the court's finances were better than they actually were and of lacking necessary permission from the state Bond Commission to borrow money on behalf of his court.

He told the bank he would use the loans to provide new software and training for his staff, while also covering some expenses he personally incurred while getting his office running, according to court documents.

Between August 2011 and September 2013, DeJean withdrew almost $218,000 from his court's operating account at several casinos, including Boomtown in Harvey, Harrah's in New Orleans, Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi, and L'Auberge in Lake Charles, the court documents say.

Additionally, shortly after money related to the First Bank & Trust loans was deposited into the court's operating account, DeJean withdrew "substantial" amounts of money at many of the same casinos, the documents say.

Court employees and visitors eventually noted something was amiss. Despite the garnishment payments, bank loans and the collection of court fees not authorized by law, the court's operating account was overdrawn on numerous occasions, documents say.

Several parties to court cases also complained they were not receiving credit for garnishment payments they made. Others reported that checks issued by the court containing owed garnishment payments bounced.

Before his suspension, DeJean insisted he used the garnishments to cover outstanding court costs and used the loan money for the purposes mentioned to the bank.

However, investigators didn't believe him. The amount of garnishments involved was too large, they said, and DeJean said he couldn't remember how much loaned money he spent on the software or when he bought it.

The bank sued DeJean after he defaulted on the loans. It dropped the suit after DeJean agreed to personally pay the loan back.

Separately, DeJean sued to prevent the state Legislative Auditor's Office from releasing a report outlining potential misuse of funds in his court. Arguing in part that the auditors misrepresented themselves, DeJean won a ruling temporarily blocking the release of the report, though there has not been a final decision on the suit's merits.

DeJean's former constable, Antoine "Tony" Thomassie, also has been under investigation. Earlier this year, he and his wife admitted they violated the state's nepotism laws when he hired her to handle wage garnishments.

Thomassie, 69, who lost his re-election bid in 2014, is tentatively scheduled to go to trial Tuesday on unrelated charges of drunk driving and failure to maintain control of his vehicle.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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