Family contests report’s findings

One of the most powerful families in St. Bernard Parish was on the defensive Monday following the release of a Louisiana legislative auditor’s report that claims former Clerk of Court Lena Torres let her son off the hook for nearly $200,000 in court fees for years, while another relative and court employee might have destroyed public records related to the payments.

The auditor’s report alleges that Lena Torres allowed her son, attorney Sidney Torres III, to go two years without paying $174,300 in advance court costs for 581 civil suits related to insurance claims and damage from Hurricane Katrina, possibly in violation of state law.

Additionally, the auditor found Lena Torres’ daughter, former Chief Deputy Clerk Lena Nunez, also might have violated state law when she destroyed billing records related to Sidney Torres’ account.

While Sidney Torres eventually paid back $99,566 of the outstanding balance, the 12-page auditor’s report claims Lena Torres failed to ever charge or collect advance court costs on 23 suits, totaling $4,830, and charged her son nearly half the $300 others paid to the office upon filing suit.

No other attorneys were allowed delays in payment as long as Sidney Torres was, according to the report.

A portion of the money paid to file suit — $71.50 — goes to the parish for court stenographers, to district court to pay for law clerks and to the State Treasurer as a judge’s fee. The remainder goes to the clerk’s office for its operations, though the auditor’s report said that Lena Torres could not account for how the difference was spent.

A spokeswoman for Lena Torres released a statement Monday afternoon defending the veteran former clerk against any claims of possible violations of the law.

“For more than 40 years, while under the authority and scrutiny of the Legislative Auditor, without a hint of scandal or impropriety, Mrs. Lena Torres has led the St. Bernard Parish Clerk of Court’s Office,” Denise Estopinal said in a prepared statement. “All lawyers followed the policy and procedures of the office and paid appropriately and timely all filing fees as assessed. No exceptions were asked or offered for any attorney. Standard operating procedures were followed and public records were not destroyed.

“Lena Torres’ unblemished record of performance and public service stands.”

In a prepared statement, Leonard L. Levenson, Sidney Torres’ attorney, said that the auditor’s report’s conclusions are “wrong and improperly ignores Louisiana law and previous Attorney General opinions.”

Additionally, Levenson said, a majority of the cases were originally part of class-action suits and that any fees that were legally due were paid.

“Sidney D. Torres III did not receive any financial benefit, special treatment, or a loan of public funds,” Levenson said.

An attorney for Lena Nunez did not respond Monday to a message seeking comment.

Lena and Sidney Torres each claimed that the allegations arose as a “smear campaign” current Clerk of Court Randy Nunez launched during Lena Torres’ last run for office. Attempts to contact Nunez were unsuccessful Monday.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera began looking into the claims after the Metropolitan Crime Commission, which received a tip about the allegations, notified the office about the concerns last November.

The auditor has sent a copy of the report to the St. Bernard district attorney for his review, but MCC President Rafael Goyeneche said that a party outside of the parish should examine the case for any possible prosecution since St. Bernard is a small area where conflicts of interest can easily be found.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to send it to the attorney general,” Goyeneche said.

A message left Monday with the St. Bernard Parish district attorney’s office was not returned.