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Judges Group Stops Use of Fees for Parties, Gifts

April 03, 2002|GARIOT LOUIMA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Assn. is no longer using payments from legal seminars and workshops to finance association functions, such as retirement parties and gifts, court officials said.

The new policy stemmed from an independent auditor's advice in December that such fees, paid by lawyers to attend programs coordinated in conjunction with the county bar association, should have gone to the court's general fund rather than the judges association account to pay for miscellaneous expenses, Court Counsel Frederick Bennett said Tuesday.

The audit, by Simpson & Simpson, found no evidence to suggest payments into the fund had inappropriately influenced the jurists in any cases, Bennett said.

The association will now accept money from only the 600 judges who are members and who pay $10 a month in dues directly from their paychecks, Bennett said.

The changes in operation haven't put to rest the 7-year-old allegations of wrongdoing that prompted presiding Judge James A. Bascue to order the audit in February 2001.

A handful of litigants had complained that the financial relationship among the judges, attorneys and some court-appointed officials led to unfavorable judgments in family court.

Beverly Hills attorney and taxpayer advocate Richard I. Fine said Tuesday the only way the association can redeem itself is to repay to the court all of the money it misappropriated over the years.

"I have great respect for the legal system, and it pains me that the integrity of the judicial system should be called into question for something like this," Fine said.

Bennett said because the association didn't keep comprehensive records, it is impossible to determine just how much money should have gone to the courts over the years. So, in December, the association's board of directors voted to relinquish its entire account of $60,000 to the court.

The association was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1991, but judges have been operating the fund since about 1960, Bennett said. Over the years, it has been known as the "Flower Fund," because it was used to send flowers to funerals and retirements, and the "Judges' Fund." In recent years, the fund has paid for bills including a $6,000 luncheon at the Friars Club, and an $800 limousine bill for guest speakers.

"Like many organizations, governmental or private, people put together funds to pool money for things that are of common interest," Bennett said.

The Christmas parties, retirement dinners and social events are "perfectly appropriate and legitimate things to do," Bennett said.

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