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Impeachment trial begins for Louisiana federal judge

WASHINGTON, DC- September 16: On Capitol Hill arguments and evidence is heard in the impeachment of U.S. District Court Judge of Louisiana G. Thomas Porteous, Jr., Thursday September 16, 2010. The 63-year-old judge, based in New Orleans, faces four articles of impeachment, including allegations that he lied during background investigations related to his 1994 nomination to the federal bench. Porteous' lead attorney is Jonathan Turley. The committees Chairwomen is Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO). (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
WASHINGTON, DC- September 16: On Capitol Hill arguments and evidence is heard in the impeachment of U.S. District Court Judge of Louisiana G. Thomas Porteous, Jr., Thursday September 16, 2010. The 63-year-old judge, based in New Orleans, faces four articles of impeachment, including allegations that he lied during background investigations related to his 1994 nomination to the federal bench. Porteous' lead attorney is Jonathan Turley. The committees Chairwomen is Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO). (Melina Mara/The Washington Post) (Melina Mara)
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Mutterings about the ethics of Porteous, a state judge for ten years and former prosecutor, began almost as soon as he landed on it in 1994. He was suspected of being way too cozy with Louis and Lori Marcotte, a pair of siblings who had monopolized the lucrative bail-bond business on the West Bank, and he was one of the local judges investigated in Operation Wrinkled Robe, a wide-ranging FBI investigation into corruption at the Jefferson Parish courthouse. Two of his fellow state judges went off to jail for mooching off the Marcottes, and a third was taken off the bench by the state Supreme Court.

Marcotte took the judge to Las Vegas and treated him to expensive lunches, he testified this week, and his employees fixed Porteous's fence and his cars, often returning them from the detailing shop with the vodka or shrimp left inside as a special goody bag. Lawyers slipped Porteous cash, prosecutors charge, to influence their cases before his bench. The defense says those lawyers were longtime friends just trying to help out a man they knew had fallen on tough times because of gambling debts.

The judge's longtime secretary, Rhonda Danos, testified that she picked up an envelope in 1999 from Jacob Amato, a lawyer the judge's son said he called "Uncle Jake," who had a case pending with the judge. When Danos asked Amato's secretary what was in the envelope, "she just rolled her eyes," Danos said. "I said, 'Never mind, I don't want to know.' " Prosecutors said the envelope was stuffed with $2,000 or so in cash.

Danos also paid the judge's gambling markers at casinos, she testified, after he and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 2001, initially under false names. Prosecutors charge Porteous accumulated thousands of additional gambling debt after the filing and never disclosed it to the court.

The impeachment trial's rules of evidence are unlike civil or criminal trials, and McGaskill often has leaned over to seek guidance from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the committee's vice-chairman and a longtime Judiciary Committee member. And the case is complicated, for all of the hours of narrative that would seem to place Porteous in the parade of infamous Louisiana public servants, from former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) with his cash in the freezer all the way back to Huey P. Long.

The FBI and the Justice Department conducted a lengthy criminal investigation of corruption and declined to press charges against Porteous more than three years ago. And Porteous has said he will retire in a few months, but if the Senate voted to impeach, he would lose his substantial federal pension.

"The House has pursued impeachment despite the fact that Judge Porteous will retire in a matter of months and has already been severely sanctioned by the Fifth Circuit (mainly a suspension from hearing cases) for the appearance of impropriety created by his actions," his lawyers said in their pretrial brief. "If removed on the basis of an appearance of impropriety, the Senate would set a dangerously low and ill-defined standard for future impeachments."


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