House panel moves toward judge's impeachment

WASHINGTON With little discussion, the Democratic-led panel voted unanimously to launch an investigation against U.S. District Judge Thomas Porteous, a Louisiana jurist, who is charged with presiding over a trial in which the lawyers involved had given him money. He's also accused of filing for bankruptcy under a false name.

Porteous was appointed by President Clinton.

The Judicial Conference of the United States reported in June that Porteous may deserve impeachment. If the full House impeaches Porteous, the case would advance to a Senate trial. A guilty verdict would remove him from the bench.

It would be the first impeachment of a federal judge since 1989, when the House impeached Alcee L. Hastings, now a Democratic congressman from Florida, and Walter Nixon of Mississippi.

Neither Porteous, his attorney Kyle Schonekas, nor Chief Judge Helen G. Berrigan of Louisiana's Eastern District was available for comment.

In its report, the Judicial Conference said Porteous may deserve impeachment over allegations that he filed a personal bankruptcy petition for himself and his wife under a false name in 2001 and filed many other false statements under oath during the bankruptcy proceedings. He also allegedly took "gifts and things of value" from lawyers with cases before him.

"We take it very seriously when the governing body of the Judiciary sends us a referral for impeachment," said Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich. "Upon review, we believe this matter merits a full investigation."

There was no dissent on the often highly polarized panel.

"I strongly believe that the committee is doing the right thing," said the panel's ranking Republican, Lamar Smith of Texas. "The alleged corruption of a federal judge, who is appointed for life, is especially egregious."

The U.S. House has impeached 13 judges; the Senate acquitted four, convicted seven and two resigned without trial, according to the Federal Judicial Center's Web site.

The last acquittal was of Harold Lauderback, a California district judge, in 1933. Four federal district judges have been convicted and removed from office since then: Halsted L. Ritter of Florida in 1936; Harry E. Claiborne of Nevada in 1986; Alcee L. Hastings of Florida in 1988; and Walter L. Nixon of Mississippi, in 1989.

The allegations against Porteous were uncovered during the FBI's Operation Wrinkled Robe, an investigation of the relationship between state judges in Jefferson Parish, where Porteous served until he was appointed a federal judge in 1994, and bail bondsman Louis Marcotte.

That 5 1/2-year investigation put court-ordered wiretaps and video cameras in the parish courthouse and brought 14 convictions, including those of two state judges who were sent to federal prison.

In addition to making false statements under oath and taking gifts from attorneys, the charges against Porteous include hiding assets from the bankruptcy estate, leaving gambling losses off the list of debts and getting short-term credit from casinos after the bankruptcy judge ordered him to get approval of the court before taking on any debt.

The probe also uncovered evidence that Porteous rejected a request to step down from a case without revealing that he had a history of financial relationships with at least one attorney involved and leaving lawyers gifts off financial disclosure statements from 1994-2000.

Porteous stepped aside from all civil cases involving the federal government and all criminal cases in 2003, after a relative of Marcotte said the bondsman -- sent to prison for racketeering -- had paid for Porteous' car repairs and arranged another favor.

He was removed from bankruptcy cases after the 5th Circuit's judicial council's report.

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