WASHINGTON – A federal judge from Louisiana is corrupt and unfit to serve on the bench, House members said Monday as they began a rare congressional impeachment trial by laying out their case against the jurist.
Playing the role of prosecutors, Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., used their opening statements to a Senate impeachment panel to outline what they called a decades-long pattern of unethical behavior by New Orleans-area U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous. They said that included taking cash, expensive meals and other gifts from lawyers and a bail bondsman, lying to Congress and filing for bankruptcy under a false name.
"It is the unanimous view of the House of Representatives that his conduct is not only wrong but so violative of the public trust that he cannot be allowed to remain on the bench without making a mockery of the court system," Schiff said.
Porteous' attorney, Jonathan Turley, denied some allegations but acknowledged others such as accepting meals, which he said is perfectly legal. He said the judge's behavior, while perhaps reflecting poor judgment at times, doesn't meet the high crimes and misdemeanors standard set in the Constitution for impeachment.
"Judge Porteous has never been indicted, let alone convicted, of any crime," Turley said. "What the Congress has impeached this judge for is an appearance of impropriety."
Turley also said much of the conduct in question occurred when Porteous was a state judge and that Congress would be breaking from precedent by convicting him for behavior that occurred before he joined the federal bench.
The Senate trial is the first since the 1999 case against former President Bill Clinton. Porteous, who was appointed by Clinton in 1994, would be just the eighth judge to be impeached and convicted by Congress, and the first in more than 20 years.
The House voted unanimously in March to bring charges. A two-thirds vote is needed in the Senate to convict him.
The Senate panel hearing the case, chaired by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., appears ready to resolve it quickly, scheduling a series of all-day hearings this week and next.
House investigators who spent months investigating say Porteous was struggling with drinking and gambling and had racked up more than $150,000 in credit card debt by 2000, mostly for cash advances spent in casinos.
Most of Monday's testimony involved a close relationship that Porteous maintained with two attorneys who once worked with the judge, Robert Creely and Jacob Amato.
As they did earlier before House investigators, the two acknowledged giving Porteous thousands of dollars in cash going back to the 1980s, 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 acknowledged taking him on trips such as one to Las Vegas for a bachelor party for the judge's son, at which Creely said he helped pay for an expensive meal, a hotel room and dancing at a strip club.
Creely and Amato, however, said they never received favorable treatment from Porteous and that they gave him money only because he was a longtime friend who needed help.
Porteous' behavior was uncovered in a five-year FBI investigation in Jefferson Parish dubbed "Operation Wrinkled Robe." Although the sting netted convictions against more than a dozen others, Porteous was never charged with a crime. He was, however, suspended from the bench, and the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended that Congress consider impeachment.
Turley said Porteous, 63, plans to retire next year regardless of what happens.