Criminal Justice
 

Citing his extensive judicial experience, Paul Sens waves off accusations of nepotism, impropriety

Judge Paul Sens, an 18-year veteran at New Orleans Municipal Court, wants to move up to Criminal District Court, replacing outgoing Judge Julian Parker.

In an interview with The Lens, Sens touted his experience as his biggest asset. But Sens’ long tenure on the bench could turn out to be a political burden.

His opponent, Byron C. Williams, said Sens’ last few years as a judge have been marked by accusations of nepotism and questions about his family’s professional relationship with Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

“It’s been reported by you, by The Times-Picayune, WWL, Fox,” Williams said. “You can check Google and Paul Sens, until you’re tired of reading. You’ll be very concerned.”

If Sens is elected, he would no longer preside over minor offenses in Municipal Court, instead taking on some of the city’s most serious and complex felony cases. That would come with a pay raise of more than $30,000 above the $110,000 he made in 2013, according to his most recent financial disclosure.

First elected in 1996, Sens served as Municipal Court’s chief judge from 2007 to 2012. The court has the largest criminal docket in the state — 31,791 cases filed last year compared to 3,376 in Criminal District Court.

Despite the workload, Municipal Court’s four judges resolved more than 28,000 cases last year. A 2013 report on “rightsizing” the city’s judiciary by the Bureau of Governmental Research found that Municipal Court was the only court in the city that did not have too many judges.

“Of the four judges here, handling in excess of 30,000 cases a year, we’re under 60 days from institution to resolution,” Sens said. “My average is 52. I think that I’ve got a track record of docket control.”

That will come in handy in Section G, which has one of the largest case backlogs in Criminal District Court. The Metropolitan Crime Commission reported that Parker’s court averaged 285 open felony cases last year, compared to a Criminal District Court average of 214. And 40 percent of Parker’s cases were more than a year old, compared to a court average of about 31 percent.

“I will be working on backlog first,” Sens said. “And once I do that, I think, I intend to be yearly in the top of the reviews and ratings.”

Sens said he demonstrated his skill at docket management in 2010 and 2011, as chief judge, when District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro shifted all misdemeanor cases from Criminal District Court to Municipal Court. Sens said it was a “seamless transition.”

Sens stepped down as chief judge in June 2012. “It was personal matters of health, for both me and my wife,” he said.

A month later, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux released a pair of reports focused on Sens. One accused Sens of building a “dynasty” at the court, with 18 of his relatives working there since 2000.

“It was really off-base,” Sens told The Lens. “He alleged that there was nepotism. Absolutely not true. It’s a slanderous lie.” Sens said the report named a sister-in-law who was hired before he took office. It also named one of Sens’ sons. Sens said his sons “never worked a day here in their lives.”

Asked how many relatives still work for the court, Sens said, “I have a niece who works for me as my minute clerk.” Asked if that was all, he said, “For me, yes.”

While she may be the only relative who works for Sens personally, The Lens identified four others named by Quatrevaux who worked for the court as of May, according to city salary data. Sens did not respond to a follow-up request for comment.

Quatrevaux’s other report on Sens came after The Lens reported that Gusman and Sens had hired each other’s wives on public contracts.

In 2013, John Sens, the judge’s brother and Gusman’s former purchasing chief, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge for bribery related to a bid-rigging scheme. Soon after, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reported that a construction firm connected to the Sens family had been hired as a subcontractor for a $10 million jail project in 2010.

Sens declined to discuss Gusman’s hiring of his wife or the construction contract, saying the sheriff should answer those questions. However, he defended his decision to hire Renee Gusman, the sheriff’s wife, as a counselor for a diversion program for small-time drug offenders.

The program was created after the City Council changed city law to allow police officers to issue tickets for marijuana possession instead of making an arrest.

“My question at that meeting when it was passed [at City Council] was, what resources are you giving me to accomplish this? And the answer was, absolutely nothing,” Sens said.

He said he went to Renee Gusman because she was in the field and was willing to work for what he described as a standard counseling fee.

“I said if you think you can do it for that amount, and you think you can help me get something running, I need some help,” Sens recounted. “I went to a friend and asked for help.”

In the two years since, he said, “we’ve helped over 5,000 young people in the city of New Orleans go through the system without getting a criminal record.”

In 2010, Sens was a member of a working group that drafted a proposal to rebuild Orleans Parish Prison. He sided with Gusman by voting against the recommended cap of 1,438 beds. The cap was later approved by the City Council, and construction on the “Phase II” building went ahead.

Gusman is once again proposing an expansion in the form of a “Phase III” building. Sens supports that proposal.

“It was an arbitrary figure that somebody threw out,” he said of the 1,438 maximum capacity. He cited a population projection study by corrections expert James Austin.

In order to get the jail down to that size, a corrections expert hired by the city said the jail would have to get rid of its state prisoners and judges would have to set lower bonds that people could afford.

The Vera Institute’s Pretrial Services Program, which screens incoming arrestees and rates them for their risk of failing to appear in court, was implemented with an eye toward reducing bail bonds.

That proved proved controversial among the bail bond industry and Criminal District Court judges, in part because of how the Pretrial Services Program cost the city. Judges argued the money — $623,000 this year — could be better spent in their courts. Sens said that while he’s in favor of the program in theory, he’s more concerned that it takes money away from the courts.

“In a perfect world, it’s certainly something we should be able to use,” he said, “and it’s a good thing to have. But it becomes a budgetary issue for me.”

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