Inside Metro Politics for July 6, 2013

N.O. judges off
to Panama junket

When the state legislative auditor last year slapped them for excessive travel spending, the judges of Orleans Parish criminal and civil courts brushed it off as phony criticism that ignored guidance from the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Come next week, many of those same judges will be brushing off luxuriant white sand from a beach in Panama City before heading off to the swim-up bar. (That’s Panama City, the Central American capital, not the modest Florida Panhandle beach town.)

In what has become an annual ritual, several local judges, including new Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, will journey off the mainland with other lawyers for a weeklong conference put on by CLE Louisiana. The group sets up classes for lawyers and judges in the state to fulfill their required annual continuing education credits, often enticing them with exotic locales.

Last year, it was Puerto Rico. This year, it’s Panama City’s Westin Playa Bonita.

Among those on various panels will be Orleans Parish Civil District Court judges Michael Bagneris, Regina Bartholomew, Paula Brown, Sidney Cates IV, Kern Reese and Chief Judge Piper Griffin, Traffic Court Judge Herbert Cade and Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo.

City Attorney Sharonda Williams, state Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, and state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, also are slated to attend.

Marullo, the longest-serving judge in the state, said the conference is among the year’s best. He said he’s grown tired of similar seminars set in Florida resorts. Marullo will lead a panel discussion titled “Love for Sale,” in which he will discuss legal implications of human trafficking and the Canal Street brothel case a decade ago.

“You’ve got to make it attractive to somebody to go. I don’t find it attractive to go to Florida anymore, and you have 15 hours mandated that you have to do,” Marullo said. “It’s going to be nice.”

Marullo is the only Orleans Parish criminal court judge going, said Rob Kazik, the court’s judicial administrator.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera issued a report in November that hammered both the civil and criminal court judges for, among other things, living large off court fees during similar trips. While the state Supreme Court set reimbursement caps for such trips, often the judges would simply max out the figure, upgrading to two- and three-bedroom suites while bringing along family, the audit found.

The audits suggested that the civil court judges overspent on travel by $7,567 over three years. A separate audit found the criminal court judges failed to adequately document their expenses, making it impossible to say what was misspent. One criminal court judge told an auditor he “uses the honor system.”

Since then, the state Supreme Court has changed its system for limiting travel and expenses for continuing education, setting a $15,000 per-judge, per-year cap on total spending, Reese said.

Reese, who said he planned to take his wife at his own expense, noted hidden benefits to the program, including networking between Port of New Orleans and Panama Canal officials, and alumni events with Tulane and Loyola law school grads from Central America.

“What I do is not unethical, impermissible or illegal,” Reese said. “This is actually an excellent seminar. This is not a boondoggle.”

Nor is it a marathon. The work agenda for the conference never runs past 12:30 p.m., leaving plenty of time to frolic.

OPSB member’s brother’s bid OK’d

Can the brother of an Orleans Parish School Board member bid on a school construction contract without running afoul of Louisiana’s ethics laws? As complicated as the school system is in New Orleans, it may be no surprise to learn the answer is both yes and no.

OPSB member Leslie Ellison put the question to the state Ethics Board earlier this year, wondering if her brother’s company, Ellison Builders, could bid for work on the new Phillis Wheatley Elementary building or the gym at Eleanor McMain Secondary School.

The Ethics Board gave her a split decision.

Yes, Ellison Builders could bid on the Wheatley project, since that falls under the jurisdiction of the Recovery School District, a state-run agency that took over most of the city’s public school after Hurricane Katrina. The School Board does occasionally cast a vote that affects Recovery District projects, as when the board approved a set of tax credits for Wheatley back in February. But the board doesn’t have any direct say over which contractors get work with the state.

McMain, on the other hand, is apparently off-limits. It’s one of five traditional schools that fall under the direct purview of the board, along with more than a dozen more autonomous charter schools. And the state’s code of ethics says that an “immediate family member of a public servant” can’t contract or subcontract on a project that’s “under the supervision or jurisdiction of the public servant’s agency.”

Harris-Perry’s show goes to Essence

Tulane professor and Crescent City resident Melissa Harris-Perry’s weekend show on the national network MSNBC has a bit more New Orleans flavor than usual this weekend. She’s filming the show, which airs Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. 11 a.m., live from the Essence Festival. (It normally films in New York, where she spends the weekends.) And her guests on Sunday will include New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who is slated to talk about “the growing gun violence problem in New Orleans from a public health perspective,” according to a news release from Cantrell.

“We must approach this issue holistically and examine the critical role access to mental health services plays in acts of violence,” Cantrell said in the release.

Compiled by John Simerman and Andrew Vanacore of the New Orleans bureau