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Impeachment hearings end for federal judge

The fate of District Judge G. Thomas Porteous — who ran up gambling debts, accepted gifts and filed for bankruptcy under a false name — will likely be decided in November, a senator says.

September 21, 2010|By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau

Only seven federal judges in American history have been impeached and removed from office -- for offenses that include being intoxicated on the bench and waging war against the United States during the Civil War.

On Tuesday, a special Senate impeachment committee finished five days of testimony to decide whether to add to the list a judge from New Orleans who ran up gambling debts, filed for bankruptcy under a false name and accepted gifts from lawyers and friends.

He has not been criminally charged. But if the full Senate votes to remove him from office, U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. — called "G.T. Ortous" in his bankruptcy filing — will lose his $174,000 yearly salary and pension.

Though he offered to retire next year if he could keep his pension, Porteous has refused to resign, even after being stripped of his legal duties by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. In March, the House of Representatives unanimously approved four articles of impeachment, accusing the judge of repeatedly making false statements to hide his misconduct.

But the standards for removing a life-tenured judge are not that clear. In the late 1980s, three judges were impeached and removed, but all had faced serious criminal charges.

The defense team for Porteous, led by George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, argued that the judge was guilty of, at most, low crimes and misdemeanors. Porteous may have taken gifts from lawyers and friends, Turley said, but he is not guilty of serious offenses such as bribery. His defense on the bankruptcy charge is that his former lawyer suggested the phony name as a way to avoid bad publicity.

"This is about an appearance of impropriety, and we think it is a mistake to remove judges based on that standard," Turley said Tuesday during a break in the testimony.

"It would make a mockery of the court system to leave him on the bench," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D- Burbank), one of the House prosecutors. He said the judge had spent years "gaming the system" by taking kickbacks and payoffs, including gambling trips to Las Vegas and free car repairs.

Witnesses told of bail bondsmen leaving a bucket of shrimp and a bottle of vodka as gifts for the judge. Another witness told of the judge receiving an envelope with $2,000 cash for his son's wedding from a lawyer who appeared before him.

The 12 senators hearing the testimony are charged only with making a report to the full Senate.

"We're to be eyes and ears of the Senate. We will present the facts in an impartial report," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the panel's chairwoman. She said the full Senate was likely to decide on Porteous' fate after the November election.

Only a handful of spectators and staff watched Tuesday as the lawyers questioned several experts on bankruptcy. Several senators sat reading and barely looked up as the lawyers and witnesses went back and forth on how bankruptcy proceedings normally operate.

Porteous continued gambling after he filed for bankruptcy, and he hid some assets from creditors, the House prosecutors said.

Witnesses for the defense testified that bankruptcy filings often contain errors that need to be corrected with later filings. It is not unheard of, they said, for debtors to hide some of their assets, or like Porteous, to not reveal he was due a substantial tax refund.

But at times, the senators injected a note of skepticism. A bankruptcy expert testifying for the defense said he had often seen filings with numerous mistakes. One senator asked how many times the mistake consisted of a false name on the bankruptcy petition.

"None," he replied.

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