Auditor, judges disagree on policy

The state legislative auditor issued a report Monday that sharply criticized Orleans Parish judges for spending hundreds of thousands from the Judicial Expense Fund on supplemental insurance policies and out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera maintains that the practice runs afoul of state law governing judicial salaries.

But in their responses to the audit, officials with Orleans Parish Criminal District Court and Civil District Court insist the judges have done nothing wrong. They questioned why the auditor focused solely on Orleans Parish when other courts follow similar practices and the state Supreme Court has not objected.

The report looks at $637,367 that Orleans Parish Criminal District Court spent from the fund from 2009 through 2011 and $191,073 over the same time period for judges in Civil District Court and the First and Second City Courts.

The auditor said judges were using public funds to pay for supplemental insurance policies — including professional liability insurance —and out-of-pocket medical costs. According to the auditor, doing so violates state law that provides for the salary of district judges and prohibits them from receiving additional compensation.

But the judges strongly disagree. In lengthy written responses, they argued that the Judicial Expense Fund is a self-generated fund and that it is erroneous to characterize it as state funds or public funds. They also questioned the auditor’s legal authority to “second-guess or supplant’’ the Louisiana Supreme Court, which oversees their actions.

A branch of the state Supreme Court looked into the propriety of using the Judicial Expense Funds in this manner in 1994, the criminal court response said. The conclusion then was that no action was needed, the criminal court said.

While both courts defended their actions, they also noted that they have made changes. Criminal District Court judges voluntarily suspended the practice of securing supplemental health insurance benefits in the fall of 2011. That was when the Metropolitan Crime Commission raised the issue.

“The judges of this court are not receiving access to health insurance benefits that they believe are permitted by law in order to allow the Supreme Court or the Legislature to take decisive action,’’ the criminal court noted in its audit response. No other courts in the state have stopped doing so, it said.

The audit report acknowledged that change.

Most of the beneficiaries of the supplemental health insurance policies were family members or spouses of the policyholder. Criminal court judges often had multiple policies for certain types of insurance, such as long-term care, critical illness policies and life insurance policies, the audit said.

Civil District Court judges did not use Judicial Expense Funds to pay for those kinds of supplemental policies. But judges in both courts used money from the fund to pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses, including premiums to a program that administered the reimbursement program. The amount of out-of-pocket administrative costs and reimbursements for the three-year period totaled $154,750 and $114,843 for civil court.

Judges in both courts have stopped submitting requests for reimbursement, according to their written responses, although they are still paying premiums to the program’s administrator.

The legislative auditor criticized both courts for judges’ spending on travel and accommodations during conventions and continuing education events. The audit report also said that the courts did not keep sufficient records when it comes to the hours worked by employees who are directly supervised by judges.

On travel spending, the auditor criticized both courts for spending the maximum allowed on housing by the state Supreme Court at an event known as Summer School for Judges.

The report said that judges rented condos with multiple bedrooms or hotel suites and took their families along. The auditor contrasted that expense with the more modest cost of a one-bedroom hotel room.

The auditor further faulted the judges in Criminal Court for sometimes supplying inadequate documentation for travel expenses. The court responded that it has now put its travel policy in writing and has reminded its judicial administrator that no reimbursements should be made without all the necessary paperwork.