Feuding judges, budget battles, questionable expenses gridlock Lafayette City Court

Photo by Abigail Wilson

The gist: Long before Lafayette City Court Judge Michelle Odinet’s disgraced exit from the bench, the atmosphere at City Court had been tense. Behind-the-scenes battles over court finances brewed among Odinet, Chief Judge Doug Saloom and the Guillory administration. 

The relationship between Odinet and Saloom was particularly strained. She raised flags about her colleague’s and her predecessor’s spending, taking aim at car lease allowances — refusing to take one herself — and accusing Saloom and former City Court Judge Francie Bouillion of inappropriate spending on meals. The dispute at times locked up the operations of City Court and put the court on the verge of adopting changes to how its finances were managed. Just before Odinet resigned, the Louisiana Supreme Court appointed a referee of sorts to break the gridlock. 

The Louisiana Supreme Court assigned retired state court Judge James P. Doherty Jr. of Opelousas as “supernumerary judge pro tempore.” The order was issued only two days before a video surfaced capturing racist remarks by the former judge and her children. Doherty was authorized to assume the administrative duties and responsibilities of the Lafayette City Court, according to the order, including “presiding over, moderating and chairing all administrative meetings of the Lafayette City Court.” He’s being paid a $406 per diem to sort out the business and procedures of City Court and has “full voting power in any administrative meetings and/or decisions of the Lafayette City Court.”

In other words, Doherty was to be the tie-breaker. The appointment, which does not stipulate how long Doherty will serve, appears to be unaffected by Odinet’s resignation after serving only one year of her first six-year term and the Supreme Court’s appointment of retired Opelousas City Judge Vanessa Harris to fill in for her (a special election to replace Odinet is set for Nov. 8). Appointments of supernumerary judges are not extraordinary, with public records from the LSC showing several are appointed on average each year to assist with dockets or help clear unfinished business, though the specific administrative responsibilities outlined for Doherty do seem rare (occurring only once before in the past six years, according to court records).

The LSC declined to turn over records that would give insight into who asked for assistance and why, saying correspondence concerning appointments of judges is considered privileged. Doherty and Saloom declined to comment. 

Disagreements between Odinet and Saloom festered almost from the outset. Lafayette City Councilwoman Liz Hebert says Odinet contacted her early on about how some funds were being used, saying, among other issues, that she was opposed to the long-standing practice of the court paying judges’ car leases.

“We met after she was sworn in to discuss some of her concerns,” Hebert says. 

LCG funds a large portion of City Court’s budget, including salaries (two-thirds of judges’ salaries, with the Louisiana Supreme Court paying one-third). Court-generated fees from civil, criminal and traffic cases pay for the rest of court operations. 

Email records suggest that Odinet took her concerns to the Guillory administration. And she had their attention, mainly that of City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan, emails show. Logan, however, tells The Current he had been looking into City Court finances before Odinet joined the court. 

“As I told Doug [Saloom] some time ago, longtime friendship and family relationship cannot interfere with my responsibility to have this matter reviewed and claw-back for the City of Lafayette all funds expended that were not reasonable and necessary,” Logan wrote Lafayette City Court attorneys in an Aug. 23 email. 

In October Odinet wrote a letter to Guillory and the two council chairs about the car lease subsidy. “It is with reservation that I write each of you concerning Chief Judge Saloom’s request for a vehicle subsidy lease in the 2021/2022 budget, on my behalf. I would like to strike the Division A request for a vehicle lease, as I have not and will not use these funds for a vehicle,” she wrote. 

Lafayette City Court Clerk/Court Administrator Kelly Mouisset confirms to The Current that Saloom is no longer receiving a lease subsidy, saying in an emailed response that his most recent lease expired and that the subsidy, $542 a month, ended Aug. 27. 

“The City Court of Lafayette is adopting the Lafayette Consolidated Government policy with regard to the reimbursement of transportation expenses instead of the use of leased vehicles,” Mouisset writes. (The mayor-president, his top aides and LCG directors are entitled to receive car subsidies for vehicles they own.) 

Odinet refused to sign off on expenses. City Court maintains separate checking and savings accounts for its two divisions, A and B. Sources close to the court tell The Current, Odinet, who declined to comment for this story, would not approve expenses in her A division. On Sept. 10, she emailed Logan, referencing a conversation she’d had with him earlier that day and asking his permission to write checks from the Division A civil fees account to pay for its $96 cell phone bill. Logan responded: “As the functions of the court must continue while we get a budget and procedure in place, on behalf of LCG, I approve this payment from Civil Fees, the net of which will be remitted to LCG,” Logan wrote.

Logan, in turn, has accused the court of “abusive” spending. “After discussions and some whistle blowing by court staff, several instances of abusive spending have come to light,” he wrote in a separate Aug. 23 email to both councils. Logan tells The Current Odinet was not the only whistleblower. “There was another whistleblower that came to light after Judge Odinet,” he says. 

Communication has at times been testy between LCG and City Court attorneys. Ongoing questions over realignment of City Court revenues and expenses between the court and the city’s general fund led Saloom, in his capacity as chief judge, to retain attorneys Gary McGoffin and Mike Hill to represent City Court. Hill most recently served as interim city marshal. Both declined comment for this story. 

(Disclosure: McGoffin represents The Current in public records matters.)

Logan has pushed for a forensic audit. In emails to McGoffin and Hill, he detailed two hefty bills at high-end restaurants, which he deemed lavish and unnecessary.

Here we have a Judge and his former cohort that have buried themselves in benefits, that quite honestly are not reasonable or necessary. … The vehicles were not necessary as a court expense. We have discussed the extensive spending on ‘staff meetings’ for in excess of $1,100 at Ruth (sic) Chris and $600 lunch at Clancey’s (sic) in New Orleans with alcohol being purchased on at least one occasion … at the expense of taxpayers,” he wrote. Logan also questioned whether judges should be able to keep the points they accumulate on private credit cards when they are reimbursed for travel and other court expenses.  

Other financial reviews are ongoing. For months now, an efficiency analysis of LCG departments, the Police Department and City Court operations has been underway by LCG consultant KPMG, and the Louisiana Legislative Auditor is reviewing a number of spending issues, too. In light of those reviews, McGoffin has pushed back on the necessity of the forensic audit.

“We have been working cooperatively to resolve the budget realignment between LCG and City Court,” McGoffin wrote Oct. 19. “A forensic audit suggests otherwise.” 

In his Aug. 23 letter, Logan told the joint councils he would come to them “soon to seek funding for a forensic audit.” Council members tell The Current they were never asked to approve funding for such an audit.

Logan moved ahead without the council. On Oct. 19 he retained Metairie-based CRI to provide a “forensic analysis” of City Court civil fine collections and other transactions over the past six years at an estimated cost of $77,500. CRI is the same firm hired to conduct an $88,000 forensic audit of LUS that accused the utility of breaking state laws (findings not supported by the district attorney’s or Louisiana Public Service Commission’s reviews). Logan says LCG’s legal department is paying for the audit and that council approval was not needed.

What happens next? A Dec. 1 ordinance that would have made a variety of changes to the City Court’s finances was deferred indefinitely by the City Council. Among the primary changes was moving civil filing fee revenue and City Court expenses to the city’s general fund. In a letter to council members, Saloom detailed the proposed changes. 

“It was a request from legal,” City Councilman Andy Naquin says of his motion to defer the ordinance. “I assume it was for clarity. I respected their request.”

“There has to be a comprehensive resolution that deals with the criminal fees and the civil fees and a budget, because I think the statute requires us to pay their salaries … and the expenses of running the court,” Logan tells The Current, maintaining that state law also requires City Court to remit all civil filing fees to the city. “That hadn’t been done for years.” 

The city-parish attorney says the issue and the CRI audit remain at a standstill while he awaits additional records from city court. “We have to do a complete calculation on the reasonable and necessary expenses,” Logan says. “[City Court has] agreed to turn over the records. The mechanics of getting that done is difficult. They want me to go look at the records, to go copy what I want.”