WASHINGTON – The Senate on Wednesday convicted U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous of Louisiana on four articles of impeachment, making him just the eighth federal judge in history to be removed by Congress.
They also approved a motion barring him from holding future federal office.
Porteous, who sat before senators in the well of the chamber as they voted separately on each count, issued a statement after the vote saying he disagreed but "must now accept that judgment."
"I am deeply saddened to be removed from office but I felt it was important not just to me but to the judiciary to take this fight to the Senate," said Porteous, who turns 64 next week. "While I still believe these allegations did not rise to the level of impeachable offenses as a constitutional matter, I understand how people of good faith could disagree."
House prosecutors laid out a damaging case against Porteous, a New Orleans native who was a state judge before winning appointment to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1994. The prosecutors said gambling and drinking problems led him to begin accepting cash and other favors from attorneys and bail bondsmen with business before his court.
He also was accused of lying to Congress during his judicial confirmation and filing for bankruptcy under a false name.
The Senate voted unanimously to convict on the first article involving cash from attorneys, and with strong majorities on the other three.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who managed the case, said the bipartisan process worked as intended and "should be reassuring to every American."
"There are times this place is pretty dysfunctional," she said, "but ... I think the responsibility was handled just as the founders would have wanted us to handle it."
Many of the facts in the case weren't disputed. Porteous' lead attorney, Jonathan Turley, acknowledged that the judge made mistakes but argued that they were mostly personal failings that didn't meet the "high crimes and misdemeanor" standard for impeachment. Turley also argued that many of the practices — such as accepting favors and expensive meals — were common in the Louisiana legal community.
But House prosecutors said the evidence showed a decades-long pattern of corruption. They told senators that allowing Porteous to remain on the bench would erode public confidence in the courts and make a mockery of the federal judiciary.
After months of hearings, the Senate closed the chamber for more than two hours Tuesday night to deliberate on his fate. The Senate made its decision Wednesday in a solemn ceremonial vote in which senators sat at their desks and rose when called, saying "guilty" or "not guilty."
Porteous offered little reaction as the decision became clear, mostly looking down at papers before him where an attorney kept a tally of the votes.
In earlier hearings, two attorneys who once worked with Porteous had testified that they gave him thousands of dollars in cash, including about $2,000 stuffed in an envelope in 1999, just before Porteous decided a major civil case in their client's favor. They also said they paid for meals, trips and part of a bachelor party for one of Porteous' sons in Las Vegas, including a lap dance at a strip club.
Another witness, New Orleans bail bondsman Louis Marcotte, described a long-standing relationship in which Marcotte and his employees routinely took Porteous to lavish meals at French Quarter restaurants, repaired his automobiles, washed and filled his cars with gas, and took him on trips. 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.
The impeachment article involving the bondsman narrowly won the two-thirds majority required for conviction, with 27 senators voting "not guilty." Porteous' attorneys argued during trial that the alleged misdeeds occurred when he was a state judge and that Congress would be setting a dangerous precedent by convicting him on "pre-federal" conduct.
The final two articles — alleging that Porteous filed a fraudulent bankruptcy and lied to Congress during his judicial confirmation — drew just eight and six "not guilty" votes, respectively.
Porteous' behavior was uncovered in a 1999 FBI investigation that found widespread corruption in Louisiana's Jefferson Parish. The sting netted more than a dozen convictions, but Porteous was never charged with a crime, in part, authorities said, because statutes of limitations had expired.
The Justice Department referred a misconduct complaint to the courts. Porteous was suspended from the bench, and the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended that Congress consider impeachment.
Rafael Goyeneche, executive director of the New Orleans-based Metropolitan Crime Commission, which raised the first public questions about the relationship between Porteous and bail bondsman Louis Marcotte in 1995, said the "impeachment closes the books on perhaps the darkest and most embarrassing chapter of judicial corruption on the federal bench in decades."
"His impeachment sends a clear message that misconduct will not be tolerated on the federal bench," Goyeneche said.
Porteous is the first judge to be impeached and convicted since 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.
The case was the first impeachment trial since the 1999 proceedings against President Clinton, who was acquitted.
Associated Press writer Alan Sayre in New Orleans contributed to this report.