N.O. Inspector General: Spending at Traffic Court still lacks oversight

Two years after glaring deficiencies at New Orleans Traffic Court came to light, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and the City Council have done little to crack down on shoddy legal and accounting practices at the court, according to a new report by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux.

The inspector general first delved into Traffic Court operations in 2011.

Among other things, he accused judges at that time of failing to turn over money that belonged to the city, paying exorbitant fees to an outside accountant, and indiscriminately reducing serious moving violations to lesser charges.

In a follow-up report released Thursday, Quatrevaux said the judges have made progress — if sometimes inconsistent progress — in cleaning up the court’s operations. But he said the city has done little to improve its oversight. “The city did not accept many of the recommendations in the original report and has not acted upon those recommendations it did accept,” the new report says.

For the most part, Quatrevaux faults city officials for not pushing for changes in state or local laws that would improve transparency at the court.

For example, City Council members earlier this year debated but never acted upon a pair of ordinances that would have taken money that Municipal and Traffic Court judges keep in a discretionary fund and moved it into the city’s main treasury; that way it could be allocated during the public budgeting process.

In a written statement on Thursday, Councilwoman Susan Guidry, sponsor of the proposed changes, said she doesn’t have the votes to get them through. “Unfortunately, to date there has not been enough political will to get these ordinances passed,” she said. “I will continue pursuing implementation of these needed reforms.”

The city could have brought the courts’ revenue and spending into the normal budget process with a change in state law, a recommendation the city accepted. But the idea did not make the mayor’s legislative agenda this year, Quatrevaux noted. Nor did the city push to cap the number of employees at the courts, or fight a requirement in state law that the city must pay for anyone the judges decide to hire.

Quatrevaux also noted that the city attorney’s office hasn’t been able to start tracking how its lawyers handle Traffic Court cases because it doesn’t have the necessary software. The report says a consultant recommended a new case management system that would have cost the city between $500,000 and $700,000.

Instead, the court created new user profiles to give city attorneys access to the existing system, but Quatrevaux’s report says the attorneys haven’t started using them, so “individual attorney performance cannot be evaluated, and prosecutions and convictions cannot be tracked and analyzed.”

Responding to the new report, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin issued a statement saying that “following the initial OIG report, the city sent in staff members to identify personnel and contractual savings for Traffic Court. Working closely with the judges, we’ve now implemented significant reductions in staff and expenditures, saving the city roughly $1.5 million annually. We will continue to work to ensure the city courts are right-sized and operate efficiently.”

Quatrevaux’s report gives the Traffic Court judges themselves a mixed report card. It notes, for instance, that a random sampling of cases showed that city attorneys, not the judges, are now making decisions about whether to prosecute or dismiss charges.

Traffic Court has also cut the number of employees on its rolls from 43 down to 24, excluding the judges.

It also ended its contract with an outside accountant named Vandale Thomas, who collected more than $680,000 from the court in 2010 while also serving as treasurer for Judge Robert Jones’ political campaign fund.

In other areas, Quatrevaux said, the judges still need to improve their operations. He criticized the court for failing to provide monthly revenue and expenditure reports to the city or to integrate the court’s separate case management and accounting systems.

Jones, the court’s administrative judge, said, “I think the report speaks for itself,” but he noted that the court does provide regular financial updates to the city, and he argued that no single system could handle all of the court’s case management and accounting needs.