Monday, July 1, 2002

NEW ORLEANS In a state long associated with crooked politicians, a current investigation into judicial misconduct may shake the very foundations of the legal system.
The Washington Times has learned that the arrest of a Jefferson Parish judge last month is part of an FBI investigation targeting judges, bail bondsmen, deputy sheriffs and lawyers.
Ken Kaiser, the FBI’s local special agent in charge, would not comment on the investigation except to call it “a major one.”
The first public break in the long-rumored probe came three weeks ago when a tough-on-crime state judge, Ronald D. Bodenheimer, was arrested and accused of arranging to have illegal drugs planted in the vehicle of a man who had complained about what he said was the judge’s illegal operation of a marina in eastern New Orleans.
Judge Bodenheimer, 49, and Curley Joseph Chewning, 57, of Chalmette, La., were charged with illegally possessing and distributing the prescription drug OxyContin.
Federal agents say they overheard an exchange between the two on a court-ordered wiretap in April and Mr. Chewning was apprehended while planting the drug on April 19.
As early as mid-February, prosecutors say, Judge Bodenheimer was talking to friends and associates about “hurting” the man. When a private investigator suggested the judge’s enemy be beaten up, according to prosecutors, the judge replied: “I want him hurt worse than that.”
According to FBI Agent James Insco, after his arrest the judge told investigators he had instructed Mr. Chewning not to plant the drugs on the victim “unless it’s righteous.”
“Bodenheimer explained he meant by this comment that it was OK of Chewning to place drugs on the [cooperating witness] if it was known that the [witness] was already a drug user,” said Mr. Insco.
The judge has been placed on $150,000 bond and is incarcerated in his home, wearing electronic monitoring devices.
The investigation widened a few days ago when several FBI agents raided the area’s largest bail bond firm in suburban Gretna and Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court Jon Gegenheimer was subpoenaed to turn over documents concerning one of Judge Bodenheimer’s most publicized cases involving a divorce, child-support and custody dispute between a multimillionaire New Orleans restaurateur and his wife in April 2000.
Neither the judge nor Mr. Chewning has been indicted by a federal grand jury. Those close to the investigation say agents need more time to examine and evaluate evidence and perhaps “turn” some of those involved into government witnesses.
“Some of those who were involved on the lower rungs are beginning to remember things,” one government source said in an interview. He added that some documents already obtained “seem to point at more than one judge and perhaps at least a dozen bit players.”
The Times has been told by two sources that as many as five judges are targets.
Though Mr. Bodenheimer and Mr. Chewning, who calls himself a “self-employed small-engine mechanic,” could already face as many as 20 years in prison, even more serious charges are being investigated.
Beginning in 1999, authorities began receiving complaints of illegal activities at Mr. Bodenheimer’s Venetian Isles marina. Drug trafficking was the most serious accusation, although the government’s witness had also made complaints about safety and zoning violations.
Judge Bodenheimer’s 20-year career as a prosecutor in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes helped him win election to the judgeship three years ago.

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