KATC Investigates

Feb 25, 2014 7:40 PM by Allison Bourne-Vanneck

KATC Investigation: Appellate judges travel expenses

A recent audit on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal shows judges' spending is going up. It went up about $270,000 from 2012 to 2013.

KATC'S Investigative team found that while overall spending went up 3 percent, the biggest jump was in judges travel, which went up 7.5 percent.

Total Expenses Judges Travel
2011-12 $7,898,932 $157,439.22
2012-13 $8,168,674 $169,279.56
%Change 3.41% 7.52%

Seventy percent of those travel expenses went toward out-of-town conventions.

Judges Travel Judges Conference Travel % Spent on Conferences
2011-12 $157,439.22 $111,525.56 70.84%
2012-13 $169,279.56 $115,934.25 68.49%

Judges get $15,000 to spend on travel, which adds up to $180,000 if all the judges used their allotments.

The travel receipts reflect some high-dollar trips. Within the past two years, some appellate court judges have racked up numerous frequent flyer miles.

Trips have included a $3,600 trip to California's wine country, a conference in Puerto Rico at the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino and a summer excursion to Destin, Florida.

"That is a real real big ticket item, and the Supreme Court really recommends you attend that conference. And it is expensive. It takes up 25 percent of your budget," said Judge James Genovese, an appellate judge for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals based in Opelousas.

The trip to Destin costs the appellate judges on average $3,400 each to attend.

Eight of the 12 went back in June, where they spent time in seminars, met with vendors and spent some family time on the beach.

Judges get $15,000 each to spend on travel for the whole year. They said attending conferences provide necessary training to do their jobs effectively.

They get reimbursed for transportation and $118 a day for food. They also can spend up to $2,200 dollars in lodging. While in Destin for the week-long conference, Genovese spent five nights at a Topsol condo, but didn't reach the $2,200 cap. The cost came in at around $1,900 dollars.

"That's an expensive one, Topsol. ... You will notice the cheapest part of Topsol is the Summit, and that is where I have actually gone and stayed there.It's not on the beach you have to walk that kind of thing," Genovese said.

For judges that didn't stay under the $2,200 allowance, they did have to dip in their own pockets to cover the difference, like judges Billy Ezell, David Painter, Phyllis Keaty, and Sylvia Cooks.

Cooks spent eight days at Chateau Cheri, which is advertised as an exclusive "Castle by the sea."

"You might say that I could have gone a hundred miles down the road and found a unit for $50 a night. It's exactly what is reasonable under the circumstance. All the activities are conducted there at the San Destin facilities all the judges are there," said Cooks, who's based in Lafayette.

Because being 60 steps from the ocean comes at a price tag of $4,700 a week, Cooks covered what taxpayers didn't.

"That excess amount of money was somewhere near $2,800 to $2,900 out of my own pocket. ... I didn't spend more than the $2,200 of state public money," Cooks said.

Keaty also had to pay more after going over the allowance. She considers it an investment in herself and her family.

"The rest of the money is my contribution to my education, my continuing education, as well as my ability to have my family with me. I think that if you're going to share your time with your family -- and participate family activities that are given by the bar association -- then it's not possible to be there for less than $2,200," said Keaty, who's based in Lafayette.

While the Summer School for Judges conference in Destin eats up expensive tax-payer dollars, it also gives judges the mandatory training they need to keep their jobs.

"It's is a good seminar, don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking it. It's is expensive; it's a long ways away. Yes, it could be cheaper, and it could be closer. And I would be all for that, because that's less time I have to spend on the road, away from my family and that is a factor," Genovese said.

Last week, the Louisiana Supreme Court outlawed reimbursement for international travel. However, none of the third circuit judges traveled internationally over the last two years.

The Supreme Court requires every judge to get 12.5 hours of training each year, and five of those hours must be at a conference put on by the Judicial College.

That's one of the reasons judges said they sometimes have limited choices with conferences and where they're held.

Below are links from our investigation into spending by appellate court judges from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. You can see a breakdown of the 12 judges' travel expenses over the past two years:

2011-12 spending

2012-13 spending

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