Senate panel finishes evidence hearings in impeachment trial of Louisiana judge

By Ben Evans, AP
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Senate panel wraps up impeachment hearings

WASHINGTON — A Senate impeachment panel wrapped up hearings Tuesday on corruption charges facing a Louisiana judge who could become just the eighth federal judge to be removed from the bench.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, the chairman of the committee, said she expects to send the evidence against Judge G. Thomas Porteous to the full Senate by mid-November, with closing arguments and a final vote on his fate shortly after that.

The House voted unanimously in March to bring four articles of impeachment against Porteous, a U.S. district judge for the New Orleans-based Eastern District of Louisiana. A two-thirds Senate vote is needed to convict him.

House prosecutors allege that he was racking up debt as he struggled with drinking and gambling problems. They say he began accepting cash, meals, trips and other favors from people with business before his court, beginning as a state judge in the 1980s and continuing after he was appointed to the federal bench in 1994.

Defense attorneys have sought to portray his behavior as business as usual among lawyers and judges in the New Orleans-area legal community. They said ethics rules were vague and that he did nothing illegal — certainly nothing that warrants impeachment.

The panel of 12 senators hearing the case, however, have sharply questioned defense witnesses at times, expressing skepticism with their arguments. Porteous, who has been suspended from hearing cases, also is accused of filing a fraudulent bankruptcy and lying to Congress when the Senate confirmed him as a federal judge in 1994.

“These rise above going to lunch a couple of times,” Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, said.

Porteous, who has been suspended from hearing cases, sat quietly throughout the trial, at times shaking his head as witnesses offered damaging testimony. He did not testify.

Two attorneys who once worked with him said they gave him thousands of dollars in cash, including about $2,000 stuffed in an envelope in 1999, just before Porteous decided a major civil case in their client’s favor. They also said they paid for meals, trips and part of a bachelor party for one of Porteous’ sons in Las Vegas, including a lap dance at a strip club.

New Orleans bail bondsman Louis Marcotte described a long-standing relationship in which Marcotte and his employees routinely took Porteous to lavish meals at French Quarter restaurants, repaired his automobiles, washed and filled his cars with gas, and took him on trips. In return, Porteous manipulated bond amounts for defendants to give Marcotte the highest fees possible, said Marcotte, who served 18 months in prison on related corruption charges.

The defense team has tried to chip away at each allegation, emphasizing that Porteous was never charged with a crime despite a wide-ranging corruption investigation into Jefferson Parish courts that netted more than a dozen other convictions.

Porteous’ son, Timothy Porteous, testified that the two lawyers who gave his father cash and helped pay for his bachelor party were like uncles and helped the judge financially only because they were close friends, not because they were trying to influence court decisions.

The defense also said Porteous filed his false bankruptcy at the advice of his attorney and quickly amended it with correct information. They said he was only trying to avoid the embarrassment of having the filing published in local newspapers, not defraud the court or creditors.

House prosecutors responded that Porteous’ bankruptcy errors were intentional and came in sworn statements, a sentiment echoed by several senators who suggested that Porteous, as a judge and former prosecutor, should have known better.

“We’re not talking about typographical errors here,” Alan Baron, a House attorney, said Tuesday. “We’re talking about a false name … a conscious decision to lie under penalty of perjury.”

The impeachment trial is the first since the 1999 case against former President Bill Clinton. Porteous, who was appointed by Clinton in 1994, would be the first judge to be impeached and convicted by Congress in more than 20 years

Turley said Porteous, 63, plans to retire next year regardless of what happens. But he will lose his pension if impeached.

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