When Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jefferson Hughes III came under federal investigation over his handling of a sordid child custody fight two decades ago in Livingston Parish, he loaded up on attorneys.

Hughes hired five of them, including John Dowd, the Washington Beltway superlawyer better known as President Donald Trump’s lead counsel for the Russian election interference probe.

In 2001, Hughes hired Dowd at $600 per hour to persuade the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to back off its case against him.

It didn’t seem to work too well at the time. The feds eventually abandoned their investigation into Hughes, but not for a few more years, records show. Dowd’s $33,000 bill came due just the same.

All told, Hughes — years before he joined the Supreme Court — would claim more than $140,000 in legal expenses related to the federal probe, which overlapped an investigation by the Louisiana Judiciary Commission that appears to have resulted in Hughes writing at least three apology letters.

And when it was all over, with no charges or public recriminations for Hughes — and no public record of the allegations against him — state taxpayers picked up most of his legal tab.

Hughes recouped nearly $100,000 of his legal costs by taking advantage of an obscure state law designed to inoculate state officials against unfair criminal allegations. In Hughes’ view, the federal case against him fit the bill.

“I was only able to be reimbursed attorneys fees by law because the charges were false,” Hughes said by text message in response to a reporter’s call. “Thanks for making this point. You guys are idiots!”

The Legislature had to sign off on the reimbursement, though the lawmaker who sponsored the bill said he didn't know that Hughes had written a series of apology letters -- only that he ultimately wasn't prosecuted.

It was in May 2004, just months after he’d written those apology letters, that Hughes applied to the Attorney Fee Review Board, a state body that rarely has reason to meet, for reimbursement. Hughes was just settling into a new position as an elected judge on the state's 1st Circuit Court of Appeal at the time.

Louisiana is one of at least seven states with laws that allow publicly employed defendants to be reimbursed for legal expenses after acquittals or dropped criminal cases, according to a 2014 study by Ira Robbins, a Washington College of Law professor.

Over its 18 years in existence, Louisiana’s review board has entertained just 14 claims — mostly from state employees seeking a few thousand dollars in legal fees over a discarded criminal case. The board has rejected only two claims outright, finding the applicants didn’t qualify. The Legislature has agreed to pay out more than $1.1 million combined to the other dozen applicants.

Hughes has declined to discuss either the federal investigation or the Judiciary Commission probe. But he described them both, and the relationship between the two, in front of the fee review board after the state Supreme Court suspended its normal gag order for that purpose.

Those files, provided by the Supreme Court in response to a public records request, shed new light on the extent of the federal grand jury investigation into Hughes and his defense against it.

Among the details:

  • Federal authorities sent Hughes a “target” letter and were pursuing civil rights charges against him. At issue was a March 1999 order Hughes signed for the arrests of Rodney and Brenda Nicholson — the father and grandmother of Austin Nicholson, a 5-year-old boy at the center of a volatile custody fight the judge oversaw.
  • Prosecutors also considered “honest services fraud” charges against Hughes, according to a memo that Dowd wrote to the fee review board. Those allegations related to efforts by Hughes to reach across state lines to retrieve the boy, whom the Nicholsons had spirited away to Mississippi.
  • The feds subpoenaed records on Hughes from the Judiciary Commission itself, prompting a court fight after the secretive commission resisted. Prosecutors then produced a court order for the commission to turn over its documents.

Hughes cried foul.

“We felt the feds were ‘using’ the Judicial Commission to gain information from me that they otherwise were not entitled to and could not have obtained through legal means, information that should have been confidential,” Hughes wrote in a 2005 letter to the Attorney Fee Review Board’s administrator.

“Perhaps in the long run this helped my case, as time ran out with no action taken.”

When the five-year statute of limitations ran out on his case, Hughes got notice that the federal investigation was over.

David Dugas, then U.S. attorney for Louisiana’s Middle District, based in Baton Rouge, addressed the May 25, 2004, letter to another of Hughes’ attorneys, Lewis Unglesby. It was brief.

“Please be advised that we have closed our file in the above referenced matter,” was all Dugas wrote.

In their affidavits seeking payment from the state board, none of Hughes’ lawyers spelled out the alleged bias that the Nicholsons complained Hughes had exhibited in the case while siding with the boy’s mother.

At the time, Hughes was in a romantic relationship with a local attorney, Berkley Durbin, who had represented the boy’s mother and her new boyfriend. The boyfriend faced a child cruelty charge for allegedly abusing the boy.

Even so, Hughes rejected a motion to recuse himself from the custody and divorce case. He then swiftly engineered a transfer of the boy to his mother’s custody. State child welfare advocates fought the move, and they too complained about Hughes’ romantic link to Durbin.

L.J. Hymel, the former U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge who initiated the federal probe into Hughes, cited “an improper relationship” in documents describing the alleged conflict that prosecutors suspected was behind Hughes’ decision-making in the Nicholson custody case.

But Hughes’ attorneys largely ignored that aspect when they asked for taxpayers to help cover his legal fees.

Dowd cited an unspecified “conflict of interest” as the basis for the civil rights violation that prosecutors were pursuing against Hughes. But Dowd also insisted that the lawyers had disproved the alleged conflict.

Hughes has declined to elaborate on his relationship with Durbin or how it may have affected his judgment in the Nicholson case or others. Nor has he offered to explain why he issued written apologies to parties in that case and at least one other family law case.

Durbin has not responded to messages over the past two months.

“Somehow the ‘victims’ convinced the U.S. attorney this was a civil rights case criminal violation,” Unglesby wrote to the board.

The potential charges of mail and wire fraud involved Hughes’ communications with authorities in Mississippi and Louisiana over the return of Austin Nicholson, according to Dowd’s letter. Dowd wrote that his law firm helped build a case that Hughes properly sent materials to a Mississippi judge and other authorities there who were involved in the custody case.

“The government’s attempt to fashion a civil rights and mail/wire fraud case out of Judge Hughes’ proper exercise of his jurisdiction presented issues of judicial independence and authority, not to mention the chilling effect such an investigation would have on the judiciary as a whole,” Dowd wrote.

An appeals court ultimately ruled that Hughes no longer had legitimate oversight of the boy’s care, after Louisiana child welfare authorities asked the appeals court to intervene.

Reached for this story, Dowd said he barely remembered Hughes’ case. After reviewing the correspondence he sent to the Attorney Fee Review Board, Dowd said Hughes was wrongly accused and was a good judge who was faithful to his oath. He asked a reporter to pass along his regards.

Four other attorneys represented Hughes and sent letters to the Attorney Fee Review Board: Frank Holthaus, Eric Pittman, Michael Skinner and Unglesby. They all either declined to comment or did not respond to messages for this story.

Unglesby did, however, send a letter to the Supreme Court last week, a few weeks after an Advocate reporter asked for the documents but before the newspaper received them.

He wrote, apparently to no avail, that the lawyers who represented Hughes believed their documents about reimbursements were exempt from disclosure under state public records laws, citing attorney-client and work-product privileges.

Unglesby reported that he gave Hughes a discount, charging him just $250 an hour. He also told the fee board that he worked out an arrangement with Hughes as the judge’s legal fees mounted, in which he stopped billing Hughes and allowed him to pay what he could.

Holthaus also reported that he substantially reduced his fees for Hughes and charged him a $5,000 flat fee. Skinner reported charging a $10,000 flat fee; a detailed cost breakdown was not included in the records for Pittman.

The Attorney Fee Review Board can approve reimbursements only for attorney fees that people incur in criminal investigations. But Hughes and Unglesby argued to the board in 2005 that the federal and Judiciary Commission investigations into Hughes were inextricably entwined and that it was nearly impossible to separate fees for one versus the other.

Though Hughes initially requested a $143,745 reimbursement, board members balked during a 2005 meeting at the size of Dowd’s bills, which exceeded the maximum $350 hourly rate the state was allowed to reimburse at the time. Hughes also told them he paid Unglesby an additional $38,000 after 2002 but said Unglesby did not have billing statements for the money because he stopped officially charging Hughes.

The board shaved the reimbursable amount down to $92,951. Attorney John “Jack” Martzell, who is now dead, was a board member and “made the board aware of an ongoing personal relationship between him and Mr. Unglesby,” according to the minutes of the board's meeting. But Martzell did not recuse himself from the discussion or vote, according to the minutes, and the board unanimously voted to reimburse Hughes.

Hughes was back the next year, with a new request based on money he paid Unglesby after 2002. And during the meeting in 2006, Hughes shed more light on how information gathered in the Judiciary Commission probe was shared with federal investigators.

“A compromise was then reached in which Hughes would not be required to testify but witness and deposition testimony would be transferred from the Judiciary Commission to the United States Attorney’s Office,” read the Attorney Fee Review Board minutes from 2006.

Hughes asked for another reimbursement of $6,593, and the board unanimously agreed.

Both years, then-state Rep. Dale Erdey, a Livingston Republican, sponsored bills in the Legislature to reimburse Hughes as the fee board recommended. 

Erdey said in a recent interview that he did not know about Hughes writing the apology letters when he sponsored the bills to reimburse Hughes' expenses. He said Hughes lived in his district and asked him to carry the legislation, but that he never knew the details of the investigation aside from that Hughes was not charged with a crime. Erdey said he trusted the judicial system to determine whether Hughes was guilty of anything.

Erdey introduced the payouts in the state House of Representatives, and they were later tucked in the state’s supplemental appropriations bills and funneled through the 1st Circuit, where Hughes was serving at the time.

Beneath line items for pest control, lawn service and uniforms, Hughes had a line item dedicated to his legal expenses.

Email John Simerman at jsimerman@theadvocate.com and Andrea Gallo at agallo@theadvocate.com