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Federal judge could face impeachment

Congressional investigators wrap up impeachment hearings against a federal judge  from Louisiana, who is accused of  soliciting money and gifts from lawyers with cases before his court.
Judge Impeachment
District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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, and 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 who was appointed to the federal bench in 1994 by President Bill Clinton.

As Congress wrapped up several weeks of evidence-gathering hearings this week, legal experts who testified before a House task force suggested 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?"

Cash advances and casinos
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. Porteous may have made mistakes, 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," 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."

Westling has his work cut out for him.

In the opening hearing, House investigators said 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 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 Porteous decided a major civil case in their client's favor.

After they complained to Porteous about his frequent solicitations for cash and threatened to cut him off, the attorneys said, Porteous began sending court-appointed work to their firm. In return, the attorneys sent some of the fees they received to the judge.

'I knew he was struggling'
At another hearing, the lawyer Porteous hired for his 2001 bankruptcy discussed how he and Porteous 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 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 Porteous had a long-standing relationship in which Marcotte routinely took Porteous to lavish meals at French Quarter restaurants and offered his employees to work on Porteous' cars and home. 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.

Porteous also erased criminal convictions for two of Marcotte's employees.

"I knew he was struggling ... he would have five, six Absolut (vodka) and tonics" at lunch, Marcotte testified. "I asked him for things and he asked me for things."

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

Porteous' defense will in part focus on that fact — that he survived such an exhaustive investigation without prosecution. Porteous also is likely to argue that much of the activity in question occurred before he became a federal judge.

But the panel of legal scholars that testified this week said those circumstances are irrelevant. They said Porteous clearly misled Congress by concealing his behavior during the vetting for his federal nomination.

"It's not even clear that removing of office is really punishing him ... He is a judge only because the Senate voted to make him one, and they did so under false pretenses. He lied to them," Akhil Amar, a Yale Law School professor, told lawmakers. "Every day that a fraud continues to claim the title of a federal judge and draw his federal salary is an affront to citizens and taxpayers."

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

The last time both happened was in 1989, when two judges — Walter Nixon of Mississippi and Alcee L. Hastings of Florida — were removed from office. Hastings went on to win a seat in Congress, where he still serves.