Saturday, December 19, 2009

It’s not the lifestyle of a typical federal judge: Five or six vodka cocktails during lunch; gambling with borrowed money; bankruptcy under a phony name; cash, trips or home repairs from lawyers; and a bail bondsman with business before his court.

Witnesses in the congressional impeachment case against U.S. District Court Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. paint a jarring portrait of the former Louisiana state judge appointed to the federal bench in 1994 by President Clinton.

As Congress wrapped up several weeks of evidence-gathering hearings this week, legal experts who testified before a House task force suggested Judge Porteous is a clear candidate to become just the eighth federal judge in U.S. history to be impeached and convicted by Congress. Lawmakers appear poised to take their advice and bring charges early next year, setting up a historic trial in the Senate.

“The fact is that we are discovering a pattern of misbehavior that occurred over such a long period of time that it’s virtually unique in the annals of impeachment,” Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina, told the House panel. “Just imagine what happens if you don’t act here - what kind of precedent does that set?”

Judge Porteous, who sits in the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans, so far has offered little in his defense. And while his defense attorney, Richard Westling, acknowledges that the evidence doesn’t look good, he says the House has disregarded key facts and circumstances. Judge Porteous may have made mistakes, Mr. Westling argues, but his transgressions don’t warrant impeachment.

“The presentation before the task force has been one-sided and clearly aimed at moving forward toward eventual impeachment,” Mr. Westling said in an interview. “We hope that senators will withhold judgment until we have been given a full and fair opportunity to confront the allegations in a Senate trial.”

Mr. Westling has his work cut out for him.

In the opening hearing, House investigators said Judge Porteous had racked up more than $150,000 in credit card debt by 2000, mostly for cash advances spent in casinos.

Two New Orleans attorneys who once worked with Judge Porteous said they gave the judge at least $20,000 in cash gifts while he was a judge, including $2,000 stuffed in an envelope in 1999, just before Judge Porteous decided a major civil case in their client’s favor.

At another hearing, the lawyer Judge Porteous hired for his 2001 bankruptcy discussed how he and the judge initially filed the judge’s bankruptcy under the name “Orteous,” with a hastily arranged post office box as his address, to keep his name out of the newspaper. House investigators said Judge Porteous also lied about his debts and assets in an effort to lower his bankruptcy payments.

Later, New Orleans bail bondsman Louis Marcotte testified that he and Judge Porteous had a long-standing relationship in which Mr. Marcotte routinely took Judge Porteous to lavish meals at French Quarter restaurants and offered his employees to work on Judge Porteous’ cars and home. In return, Judge Porteous manipulated bond amounts for defendants to give Mr. Marcotte the highest fees possible, said Mr. Marcotte, who served 18 months in prison on related corruption charges.

Judge Porteous also erased criminal convictions for two of Mr. Marcotte’s employees.

“I knew he was struggling - he would have five, six Absolut [vodka] and tonics” at lunch, Mr. Marcotte testified. “I asked him for things and he asked me for things.”

The allegations against Judge Porteous were largely uncovered during the FBI’s Operation Wrinkled Robe, an investigation of state judges in Jefferson Parish, where Judge Porteous served before getting his federal post. That six-year investigation brought 14 convictions, but Judge Porteous was never charged.

The House needs a simple majority to approve impeachment; the Senate needs a two-thirds vote to convict.

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