Zurik: Misjudged - Judges under scrutiny over wedding fees
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The Louisiana State Judiciary Commission is looking into four New Orleans judges who were part of a FOX 8 investigation into overcharging couples for weddings. A source tells us the commission received several complaints and will determine if they warrant any action. These new findings are raising serious questions about one judge in particular at the Algiers Courthouse.
Ricky Jenkins married a New Orleans girl who wanted to get married in her own hometown. Jenkins joked, “Of course, you know I have to do what she says."
The couple moved to Langston, Oklahoma. But for six years, Jenkins lived in New Orleans and even worked as a courthouse clerk. Jenkins said because of his background as a public servant, he’s disturbed to find out judges have overcharged thousands of couples for weddings and pocketed tens of thousands of dollars in wedding fees that the law says the court should keep.
“It is really disturbing that you hold a position like that and you are taking from the public," he said.
Since he no longer lives in New Orleans, Jenkins found out about our stories when he received a letter. We sent one to every person married by Second City Court Judge Teena Anderson-Trahan in 2017, asking them how much she charged. We paid a company to stuff the envelopes and included a stamped return card. We heard from more than 100 couples, and then for two months we called couple after couple, trying to determine how much they all paid.
Here’s why we wanted answers to that critical question: Each judge must fill out a financial disclosure form yearly and send it to the state Supreme Court. Each year, Anderson-Trahan told the court she made less than $25,000 officiating weddings. But if you do the math, the numbers didn’t appear to add up. For example, in 2017 Anderson-Trahan officiated 473 weddings.
The law allows the judges to charge just $5. But in Algiers, Anderson-Trahan charged $100 a wedding. If she made each couple pay that amount, then she would have misreported her earnings to the court.
Tulane law professor Joel Friedman said the situation is very serious.
“These are very serious forms. This is one of the ways we monitor what judges do. It’s no different than filing an income tax report. This is a very serious breach of judicial ethics," Friedman said.
Respondent after respondent told FOX 8 News that the judge charged them $100, sometimes more. One postcard noted, “It was a really lovely ceremony, but she was an hour late.”
Another said, "She made our wedding special and was very kind. We are truly hurt and disappointed by her behavior."
All totaled, in 2017 we reached 280 people, and all told us Judge Anderson-Trahan charged them $100 or more.
“When you get 200 responses and every single one of them tells the same story? They didn’t all get together at a party somewhere and say, ‘Let’s tell Lee Zurik a lie.' This, I’m sure, is quite accurate," Friedman said.
Freidman speculates it’s strong evidence that Anderson-Trahan misreported her income to the Supreme Court.
“Since we’ve talked about it publicly...I’ve talked about it privately with judges who are friends of mine...state court judges or former state court judges who know the system very well. This is a very serious offense. They have all told me this was something that would have to go to the Supreme Court,” Friedman said.
The Judiciary Commission will take some time to review and then investigate the complaints.
Friedman said it’s an investigation that could lead to suspension or termination.
“It’s no explanation from the judges to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know. I didn’t know $100 was not the right amount.' How can that be? That’s the law that regulates their job. You know, that’s like telling me Tulane’s policies on how I’m supposed to behave in the classroom. ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was policy.' That’s ridiculous!” Friedman said.
Newlywed Ricky Jenkins admitted that Judge Anderson-Trahan was nice during the wedding. But he added that he now wants more checks and balances. Jenkins said he’s in favor of getting people elected to provide those same checks and balances on the citizens they serve.
“When you look at today’s state of economy, employment, things of that nature, we need to be more stringent on people that hold offices of that nature, of that magnitude, that are actually disseminating the law," Jenkins said.
Copyright 2018 WVUE. All rights reserved.