Author Topic: Courthouse Gang Lived by its Own Rules  (Read 229 times)

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Offline NOLAJBS

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Courthouse Gang Lived by its Own Rules
« on: June 12, 2008, 08:09:42 PM »
Courthouse Gang Lived by its Own Rules
NOLA.com | Wednesday, June 04, 2008 James Gill

It's been quite a few years since the autocracy of Leander Perez, but Plaquemines Parish still seems like a foreign country.

Both its state district judges, according to a Legislative Auditor's report, have helped themselves to public money, although there is nothing un-American about that. What sets Plaquemines apart is a disdain even for the pretense of an impartial judicial system.

The Legislative Auditor's report was forwarded to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and Plaquemines Parish District Attorney Darryl Bubrig, who has recused himself.

The judges must have conducted their alleged capers more or less under Bubrig's nose, but maybe he didn't notice, even though he was on friendly terms with one of them, Anthony Ragusa.

At all material times Bubrig was Ragusa's election campaign chairman.

Regardless of whether Ragusa is a freeloader, it cannot exactly make a defendant's day to discover that the judge is in political cahoots with the prosecutor. Ragusa could not have been regarded as an even-handed judge even before the auditor concluded he was a light-fingered one.

Now Ragusa has evidently realized the importance of avoiding the appearance of impropriety, and Bubrig has been replaced as his campaign chairman. The new man is parish Assessor Robert Gravolet.

Purists, in this famously ethical era, might note that the courts are the final arbiters of property tax disputes. But the conflict here is somewhat less blatant than it used to be, and that's about the most you can expect from this courthouse gang.

Ragusa has declined comment on the Legislative Auditor's report, but the second judge, William Roe, not only protests his innocence but claims that he instigated the entire investigation.

In an e-mail to yours truly, Roe asserts, "During the later part of 2005 and into 2006, I became aware of a ticket-fixing scheme being perpetrated by Rodney Penton, Judge Anthony Ragusa's bailiff. It was also apparent that there were improprieties going on involving cash received from probationers, the use of gasoline cards and car washes, and it was common knowledge that Judge Ragusa was using checks from a probation fund to take his staff and friends to lunch, and to fund his office Christmas parties."

When neither the sheriff nor the DA seemed inclined to take action, Roe says he arranged for Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot to be tipped off.

The resulting report confirmed that Penton was fixing tickets and that large amounts of cash entrusted to his care had disappeared. Ragusa, the auditor found, had indeed squandered public money on personal fun.

Roe's reward for bringing these scams to light was to be accused in the same report of double dipping on expenses incurred during judicial junkets to Sandestin. Roe, according to the report, paid his tabs from a parish judicial fund and then submitted receipts to the state Supreme Court for reimbursement. This may have violated state law, according to the report. If not, the law needs work.

But Roe said it didn't happen that way. He said he claimed expenses from the Supreme Court so that he could make the judicial fund whole, which he elected to do by handing cash to Penton. There is no record of the transaction because Penton failed to make the bank deposit. Penton, who now longer works for the court, has declined comment.

Since we may be sure that the Supreme Court paid Roe by check, it seems odd that he would then seek to square the court account in this somewhat informal fashion.

But that's the story of a judge who, "having always been a political outsider in this parish," is now "bearing the brunt of having tried to rectify an unconscionable situation."

Neither Ragusa nor Roe accepted an invitation to appear before the Legislative Audit Advisory Council and now they, along with Penton, have been subpoenaed for its next meeting.

Roe, who said he declined to appear before the council on advice of his attorney, says he will not seek re-election because he is "disgusted by the state of affairs in this parish and in the judiciary," and "very well may move away."

Wherever he goes, it'll sure seem weird after Plaquemines Parish.

POSTER'S COMMENTS: Past tense, Hmmm ...
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