Curator work for prosecutors under scrutiny in St. Tammany _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery addresses the audience during his swearing-in ceremony Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, at the St. Tammany Justice Center in Covington.

Curatorships are neither complicated nor especially lucrative jobs for attorneys. But even though the work is pedestrian, it’s sought after, especially by young lawyers who want to make a little money, gain some experience and build a practice.

A judge appoints a curator to track down an absent party in a lawsuit and, if the person can’t be found, to represent their interests in court. In St. Tammany Parish, 94 lawyers have put their names on the list to do that work, including several former and current assistant district attorneys.

But such work is getting closer scrutiny under new 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery, who recently put a temporary ban on all new civil work by his assistants — a ban that includes curatorship appointments.

He’s already made one permanent change: prohibiting assistant district attorneys from receiving curatorship appointments from judges in whose division they practice, he said Friday. Each division of the court has an assistant district attorney assigned to it.

He’s also reassigning an assistant district attorney who had been assigned a large number of curatorships by the judge in whose division he worked.

Montgomery’s opponent in the December runoff to replace longtime District Attorney Walter Reed, Brian Trainor, handled 108 curatorships from 2002 through August 2014, a period that included his eight years as an assistant district attorney. His law partner, Mike Montalbano, who resigned from the DA’s Office after Montgomery’s election, racked up more than 500 curatorships over the same 12-year period.

Joey Oubre, who joined the District Attorney’s Office in 2003 and still remains on the staff, also garnered a hefty number of curatorships, about 368 between 2004 and 2014.

The number of curatorships that lawyers get varies. About a dozen lawyers on the list responded to inquiries from The New Orleans Advocate last fall, and several pegged the number at 10 or so per year. Others had far fewer.

“They don’t come that often,” said Ellen Badeaux, who has done only three in 21 years.

Some private lawyers get far more work, and some on the list have had hundreds of curatorships.

Ernest E. Barrow III, who moved to the north shore in 2001, said he has done 20 to 25 per year.

Money for the curatorships is paid by the party bringing the lawsuit, according to 22nd Judicial District Court Administrator Adrienne Stroble. Selection is completely at the judge’s discretion, she said.

Amounts paid vary

The amount of money lawyers are paid varies, too, with billing records showing amounts from as little as $20 to more than $1,000, although records from 2002 to 2010 show that they typically range from $200 to $400.

Trainor was paid a total of $33,749 for his curatorship work over a 12-year period, and the cases averaged out to about nine per year. His peak year for curatorships was 2009, when he handled 25. In 2006, by contrast, he handled three.

But Montalbano’s more extensive work resulted in his getting paid $162,406 over the 12 years. Like Trainor, his busiest year was 2009, when he was appointed to 94 curatorships. But he had nearly as many in 2008, with 80. His lowest total, 17, was in 2002, before he worked as an assistant district attorney.

Oubre also had a significant number of curatorship jobs, and those 362 cases paid him a total of $122,633 through 2014, according to public records obtained by The New Orleans Advocate.

While Trainor’s and Montalbano’s curatorship case loads were distributed more evenly among the different judicial divisions, Oubre had significantly more curatorships in Judge Peter Garcia’s Division D, the same court in which he was the prosecutor for the District Attorney’s Office.

Montgomery said Friday that he is reassigning Oubre to a different division but has not yet determined which one.

Trainor and Montalbano worked in the misdemeanor section of the DA’s Office, which meant that they practiced in front of all the judges.

Garcia did not return a call for comment Friday.

Oubre declined to comment, citing a memo from Montgomery that instructs staffers not to speak to the press.

During the campaign, Trainor said his heavy curatorship caseload in 2009 reflected a large number of foreclosures during the economic downturn. He also said that he and Montalbano do not share proceeds from curatorships in their law practice. He described the work as not very time-consuming, saying that the tasks can be done in the evening or on weekends.

Much of the time, the curator does not even appear in court, he said, adding that the work did not interfere with his duties as an assistant district attorney. The same was true for Montalbano, whom he supervised when Trainor worked at the DA’s Office, he said.

But Trainor also said judges often pick assistant district attorneys for the work because they are constantly in the courthouse and are thus readily available if they are needed in court.

Questions are raised

Not everyone is comfortable with the arrangement. Defense attorney Buddy Spell said he doesn’t think curatorships should enrich government officials, and he wondered whether defendants should have a right to know how much work a prosecutor is getting from the judge in his section.

“The question is: At what point does the appointment to curatorships rise to the level of a financial relationship between the judge and the appointee?” Spell said. “At what point does it become a conflict of interest or at the very least a relationship that should be revealed to a defendant when in a felony case?”

During the campaign, Trainor said he didn’t see that as an issue, noting that curatorships are all in civil cases.

But in St. Tammany, judges handle both criminal and civil dockets, and the criminal justice system is under scrutiny as never before. Reed, who served as district attorney for 30 years, did not run for re-election amid revelations that a federal grand jury was looking into his campaign finances and the office itself.

Montgomery, who ran as a reformer, recently announced a temporary ban on all outside civil work by assistant district attorneys, a step that he described in a memo to his staff as a prudent interim step while his administration establishes procedures and policies for outside work.

Montgomery said his office will prohibit conflicts of interest in all civil work done by assistant district attorneys, including curatorship positions.

A permanent ban on all outside civil work is still one of the options being considered by Montgomery in formulating the policy handbook that will be given to staffers for their review and input at the end of the month. He expects a final version to be in place by mid-March.

No appearance of impropriety

LSU law professor Greg Smith said the code of judicial conduct law lays down several requirements for appointments by judges, including that they should not be unnecessary or create an appearance of impropriety. It says, for example, that judges “shall” avoid nepotism.

But the fact that one lawyer is chosen more often than others for certain work could simply mean that the person “is really good at it,” rather than an indication of cronyism, Smith said. He also pointed out that prosecutors are frequently in front of judges, so the judges are likely to be more familiar with them, something that can also be true of defense attorneys who are frequently in court.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said in many other jurisdictions, judges use a rotation system for choosing curators, which he said avoids favoritism or the appearance of favoritism.

He also said by adding oversight of outside work, the new district attorney can make sure that all appointments are reported to him so he can make sure there is no appearance of impropriety.

Curatorships have raised eyebrows in other jurisdictions. The Times-Picayune reported in 2010 that the disgraced former president of Jefferson Parish, Aaron Broussard, had received more curatorships from judges in the 24th Judicial District than any other lawyer: 500 in a decade.

The Times-Picayune quoted legal ethics expert Dane Ciolino as saying that judges have appointed friends and political supporters as curators for many years.

Wayne Aufrect, who is on the list in St. Tammany Parish but hasn’t gotten a lot of work, alluded to the Broussard case in talking about his own experience. “He got hundreds and hundreds of those. I get a handful,” he said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.