updated 11/17/2009 3:15:02 PM ET 2009-11-17T20:15:02

A federal judge from Louisiana was falling deeply into gambling debt as he routinely solicited money and gifts from attorneys with cases before his court, congressional investigators said Tuesday as the House opened impeachment hearings against the judge.

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U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. had more than $150,000 in credit card debt by 2000, mostly for cash advances spent in casinos, investigators said. Porteous' requests for cash became so frequent that one New Orleans attorney said he started trying to dodge the judge.

"He began to use excuses that he needed it for tuition, he needed it for living expenses," attorney Robert Creely told a House Judiciary Committee task force. "I would avoid him until I couldn't avoid him anymore ... I felt taken advantage of."

Creely said he and his law partner, Jacob Amato, gave Porteous an estimated $20,000 over about 10 years starting in the 1980s, usually in cash. That includes $2,000 stuffed in an envelope that the attorneys gave Porteous just before he decided a major civil case that earned their firm between $500,000 and $1 million. Creely said he paid for three international hunting trips, regular meals, and part of a bachelor party for Porteous' son in Las Vegas. He also acknowledged that Porteous at one point began sending the firm frequent court-appointed work, and that the attorneys assumed that the judge wanted them to return some of the fees as gifts to the judge.

Nonetheless, Creely maintained that he and Amato viewed the money as personal gifts to a "dear friend" and that they received nothing in return.

"The only reason I gave it to him was because he was a friend in need," Creely said. "I got nothing back."

Lawmakers presiding over the hearing expressed doubts, however, suggesting that Creely and Amato gave Porteous cash to avoid a paper trail, and arguing that Porteous should have recused himself from cases they were involved in regardless if they were such close friends.

Porteous — who sat quietly in the front row of the hearing room during Tuesday's proceedings — has already been suspended for two years, or until Congress concludes impeachment proceedings.

Porteous has not disputed that he received money and gifts. His attorney, Richard Westling, acknowledged that some of Porteous' decisions "in the light of day, looking backward, might have been handled differently." But Westling said the case "involves friendships that go back years."

"I think what you'll find is that there has never been an argument that what happened in Judge Porteous' courtroom was anything but fair," Westling said.

Porteous, a former state judge appointed by President Bill Clinton to the federal bench in 1994, also faces allegations of filing for bankruptcy under a false name in 2001, having improper relationships with bail bondsmen, and repeatedly filing false financial disclosures.

If the full House impeaches Porteous, the case would advance to a Senate trial. A guilty verdict would remove him from the bench.

Porteous was caught up in a five-year FBI investigation into judges in Jefferson Parish. Although he was never charged with a crime, investigators cited evidence of financial misconduct and recommended discipline.

On Friday, Porteous sued the House panel in an effort to block the impeachment proceedings, saying the committee is using testimony he gave under promise of immunity during earlier investigations. The court declined his request.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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