Updated June 22 with comments from the coroner’s attorney, the Public Defender’s Office and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement.

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Mayor Mitch Landrieu is bringing a new openness to the city’s annual budget process by holding town-hall-style meetings in each council district. This public input shapes his spending plan, he says, and gives citizens a chance to make suggestions, air complaints and learn more about the city’s priorities.

But standing in sharp contrast to this increased executive-branch transparency is a tradition of financial secrecy by some elected judges and other officials that creates a virtual black robe around judicial budgets in New Orleans.

At least $26 million a year – and likely much more – is being spent on judiciary-related offices without the public involvement required by state law, The Lens has determined after a six-month analysis of records involving 11 agencies or offices. The review included five court systems, the Public Defender’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and the Coroner’s Office.

It’s difficult to reach an accurate total of judicial spending because many public agencies did not produce a complete budget, despite multiple public-records requests.

Each of these public bodies is established separately from the city budget – indeed, many are parish-level bureaucracies – and many get significant sums of money from sources other than the city. Still, each one approaches the mayor and City Council to ask for money collected from the city’s taxpayers.

Of course, every dollar spent by the city on judicial agencies is a dollar that can’t be spent on hiring police officers, attacking blight, opening swimming pools or building libraries.

But without a full review of the judiciary’s other income and how it’s being spent, the Mayor’s Office and the City Council complain that they can’t be sure the city money is being spent wisely – and they’re growing weary of pouring their increasingly scarce revenue down this legal black hole.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry was asked to oversee criminal justice budgets for the first time last year.

“I was amazed at the dearth of information that I was provided, so two weeks before the hearings I emailed all the agencies and courts and asked them, explaining that I needed a lot more data,” Guidry said in an interview this week.  “And some people responded…but a lot of them didn’t respond or responded with very little information.

“What I found out is: This is the way they’ve done this for years, and no mayor or City Council has asked for more. And when I asked people why, they said in many cases these are independently elected officials, and that didn’t provide an explanation to me.

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“If an entity of any sort is asking for any money, it needs to be established that the money is going to be properly spent.”

Landrieu’s top aide echoed Guidry’s sentiments.

“Quite frankly we didn’t have an enormous amount of visibility into the budgets of state entities like the district attorney, like the public defender, like the courts, like the independently elected agencies like the sheriff’s office, because there’s lots of sources of funding,” Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said. “And so one of the things that we learned in that process, as did the council in their budget process, is that we need to ask a lot more questions about the global budget, in order to get a full picture of what portion of their revenues they’re requesting of the city, relative to other sources of funding.”

It’s the law

The Local Government Budget Act, signed into law in 1980 by Gov. David Treen, requires political subdivisions to engage in transparent budgeting by including the public in their decision-making. Political subdivisions with budgets more than $500,000 “shall afford the public an opportunity to participate in the budgetary process prior to the adoption of the budget,” reads the act.

More than one court official professed ignorance of the 30-year-old law.

Unlike most other state laws that exempt the judiciary, this act specifically includes judicial expense funds, the discretionary budgets that judges use to run their operations.

The law provides a list of specific actions each public body must take, from publishing its budget and making known its availability, to advertising and holding a public hearing on the budget, then making available the minutes from that meeting.

Of the 11 agencies reviewed, only Civil District Court and the separate office of the Clerk of the Civil District Court complied with provisions of the budget act and provided documents to prove it.

Juvenile Court Chief Judge Ernestine Gray said the court took the proper steps, but her office did not immediately provide back-up documentation. She said the court held a public hearing on its budget in December, following a public notice in The Times-Picayune in November.

Correction: An earlier version of this chart incorrectly said the Public Defender’s Office did not advertise a public hearing; it did.

Almost all of these agencies also are sitting on millions of dollars meant for bricks-and-mortar projects allocated through the Law Enforcement District of New Orleans — a fact that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman pointed out at the district’s most recent meeting. Although that money is meant strictly for building projects and cannot be used for operating expenses, it still irks taxpayers to be told that an agency needs city money when it is sitting on millions of dollars.

Though part of the judicial apparatus of New Orleans, and subject to the same legal provisions of the Local Government Budget Act, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office was not part of The Lens’ analysis; our previous reporting on that office has documented budget policies and practices by Gusman.

Most of these public bodies claim that going through the city’s budget process, or going through the budget processes of other local and state agencies that approve grants, meets their public hearing requirements. Therefore, they’re not holding public hearings of their own.

According to a frequently-asked-questions document prepared by the State Legislative Auditor’s Office, it is the responsibility of each body to conduct public hearings — not the agencies providing the money.

Who should be enforcing this law?

As with all state laws, that duty primarily falls to the District Attorney’s Office, said Jennifer Shea, general counsel with the State Legislative Auditor’s Office. The act also lets private citizens file a lawsuit in Civil District Court against public bodies for not following the law, she said.

If people suspect that the District Attorney’s Office might be violating the law, then they could refer a complaint to the Attorney General’s Office.

The DA’s office responded to a request for comment with generalizations about enforcing criminal laws in the state, but Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman didn’t address the specifics of the Local Government Budget Act.

As the city approaches the June 30 halfway point of the 2011 budget year, the City Council has scheduled two check-in meetings Wednesday and June 29 to see how the various judicial agencies are complying with their 2011 budgets and related goals.

“We said we want to hold departments and agencies responsible, so this is a look at the use of the money,” Guidry said. “It is also getting the message across, I hope, to these entities, that if you want general fund dollars from now on, you’ve got to show where it’s being spent, and that it’s a successful use of the money.”

Why aren’t most of these public agencies following the law?

The Public Defender’s Office gave notice that its budget was available for public inspection but never held a public hearing on the budget because nobody showed any interest, said Danielle Berger, who works in the office’s records division.

Updated, June 22:

Derwyn Bunton, head of the Public Defender’s Office, on Wednesday corrected his employee’s statement. He said his office did, in fact, hold a public hearing but that nobody attended and that minutes were not kept.

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None of the other bodies held their own budget hearings.

Traffic court revenue exceeded $14 million last year and Gov. Bobby Jindal has just signed a bill to raise court costs associated with contested red light camera tickets that will bring in millions more dollars. The chief financial officer of Traffic Court, Vandale Thomas, said that the court met the legal requirements for public hearings by going through the city’s budget process.

The court gets just shy of $1 million a year from the city, and received 17 minutes of attention from the city’s budget hearing committee on Nov. 10.

The District Attorney’s Office brings in $4.4 million each year in grants, fees, asset forfeitures, court costs, administration fees and interest on top of the $6.1 million it gets in city funding. It received 72 minutes of attention from the city’s budget hearing committee on Nov. 5.

That office’s chief operating officer, Val Solino, said grants and budgets for the DA were approved by the New Orleans Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement.

Those two groups do hold public hearings, but The Lens received muddled or incomplete responses to request for documentation.

Landrieu’s deputy mayor for public safety, Jerry Sneed, ran the New Orleans Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In response to questions about the district attorney’s budget, the Landrieu administration provided minutes of an Oct. 20 meeting of this body. However, nothing in the minutes reflects discussion of grants or a budget for the district attorney. The minutes note that more than $50 million has been granted through the coordinating council over the past five years. The administration also supplied a list of the most recent grants.

Landrieu recently hired former Councilman James Carter as the city’s criminal justice commissioner, responsible for overarching policy coordination between all criminal-justice agencies. Carter will take over chairmanship of the coordinating council from Sneed.

“Certainly as a policy measure we want to have as much budget information as possible,” Carter said. “I’m presently assessing the situation to see what kind of recommendations we can make to improve in that area.”

The Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement did not supply minutes to its quarterly meetings. Executive Director Joey Watson said the minutes were in his office in Baton Rouge, and he told The Lens to file a public-records request for them. In response to that request, his office supplied a link to a website where it said the minutes were available. That link that did not work. The office has not responded to follow-up requests for the information.

Updated, June 22:

The commission supplied minutes to its meetings Wednesday. In a year’s minutes, however, nothing reflects discussion of grants or a budget for the district attorney.

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Luxury cars, personalized desk calendars and leather couches

Meanwhile, many courts use restrictive interpretations of the state open-meetings laws to avoid public scrutiny.

Judicial expense funds are discussed at meetings of all judges in a particular court, called en banc meetings. A Louisiana Supreme Court ruling from 1981 said en banc meetings are not subject to Louisiana’s open-meetings law.

Then again, nothing in the law prevents judges from opening their meetings to the public, if they so choose, to shed light on how they spend their money.

Nevertheless, the Local Government Budget Act does require judicial expense fund budgets to be made available to the public, if not the deliberations that go into creating them.

The judicial expense funds derive their money from all fines and fees imposed by the court.

One court official said he can’t create a judicial expense fund budget because he has no idea how much money the court might bring in.

“There isn’t a budget for the Judicial Expense Fund,” Municipal Court Spokesman Chris Sens wrote in an email. “The court does not know what the amount of fines and fees will be collected until they are collected.”

In response to a public-records request, the Municipal Court provided documents showing it spent $3.3 million from its judicial expense fund in 2010; the city provided $2.8 million to the court that year.

Records show that the court’s judicial expense fund was used for a wide variety of expenses such as court reporting, automobile expenses and office supplies.

Among other things, the judicial expense fund has bought four Ford Expeditions and a Ford Crown Victoria for Municipal Court judges and staff over the past seven years, records show.

Municipal Court Chief Judge Paul Sens said he didn’t think the court’s budget, or the judicial expense fund budgets, are covered by the act.

“Because we’re a parish court, not a criminal court, our budgets are done through the city’s budget process, so I think we’re exempted,” Sens said.

Criminal District Court didn’t comply with the state’s public-records law and provide The Lens with a complete budget for its judicial expense fund. However, officials there did send over an accounting of how it spent the money last year.

The court’s check register shows the judges spent more than $1 million in 2009 and 2010. Included in those expenditures are line items such as a personalized New Yorker desk calendar for Judge Arthur Hunter, and thousands of dollars paid to Judge Laurie White to furnish her office.

White bought a leather couch for her secretary’s office, a microwave, toaster oven and executive chairs as well as desks, cabinets and computer stands. In her request to the court for reimbursement, White submitted a list of items and an explanation, which read: “When Judge Laurie White arrived in Section A, the court room was bare.”

White responded to questions about the expenditure in an email. She wrote that all items were purchased secondhand and that members of the public are welcome to visit Section A to judge its efficiency.

“The Court operating fund has provided a small toaster and small microwave for our comfort in order to eat at the courthouse and work through lunch,” White wrote. “I determined that the purchase of a small toaster and a small microwave by the Court’s operating budget would not be a lavish expenditure. If, however, some might consider these small appliances an unnecessary luxury, then I stand willing to answer the value of such expenditure which is less than $100.”

Traffic Court Chief Judge Bobby Jones III said he didn’t know the court was obliged to hold public hearings on its judicial expense fund budget, and that he had not heard of that law.

“You’re going to educate all of us,” Jones told a reporter during an interview. “We’ll do it this year.”

A catalyst for change

City Council Budget Committee Chairman Arnie Fielkow said it is helpful for the city to know about other sources of revenue for the agencies it funds.

“If, in fact, more money can be funded from other sources, it may allow us to budget less in a particular department, knowing that it’s being made up in some other category,” Fielkow said. “The total package is definitely relevant to us because we have limited resources, at the end of the day.”

The council’s focus is on just the amount of city money being provided, Fielkow said. But while he admitted to frustration about the opacity of some of the outside funding numbers, the level of openness has improved over recent years.

Apart from that, there was a degree of reticence to get involved in a discussion of the issues brought up by The Lens analysis.

Fielkow was unavailable for a follow-up interview based on the The Lens’s findings in this story.

The Lens examined the budgets of 11 distinct public bodies. Except for the last organization, elected officials lead each:

  • Criminal District Court, Chief Judge Terry Alarcon
  • Clerk of Criminal District Court, Arthur Morrell
  • Juvenile Court, Ernestine Gray
  • Civil District Court, Chief Judge Rosemary Ledet
  • Clerk of Civil District Court, Dale Atkins
  • Municipal Court, Chief Judge Paul Sens
  • Traffic Court, Chief Jones Robert Jones III
  • Clerk of Traffic Court, Noel Cassanova
  • Coroner’s Office, Frank Minyard
  • District Attorney’s Office, Leon Cannizzaro
  • Public Defender’s Office, led by Derwyn Bunton

Alarcon referred questions to Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik. Kazik did not respond following the call with Alarcon, but earlier, his office referred The Lens to the city for comments on the court’s budget.

Likewise, Morrell referred The Lens to the city for comment on his office’s budget.

Cassanova said repeatedly that his office goes through the city’s budget process, and he said that he had not heard of the Local Government Budget Act.

Minyard’s spokesman John Gagliano advised The Lens to contact the office’s attorney when we asked for a comment from Minyard. Attorney Bill Bradley did not respond to a request for comment.

Updated, June 22:

Bradley responded by email: “You are right, and I thank you for bringing the law to my attention. I have forwarded the entire act to Dr. Minyard.”

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As one of the only elected officials whose budget has been shown to meet the requirements of the law, Atkins is well placed to articulate why public hearings are essential.

“Because they are public funds, I think it’s important that the public knows what we’re doing with the funds,” Atkins said. “It’s mandated by law, but also it’s important to me because I can give the public a view of what we do. And if we didn’t have a public hearing, the public wouldn’t know what we do.”

Guidry, for her part, was pleased to learn of the Local Government Budget Act.

“Thank you for finding this document,” Guidry said.  “I hope it will lead to a lot more openness around criminal justice budgets in the future.”