Seven federal judges in Louisiana, including two in New Orleans, were among the 131 nationwide who failed to recuse themselves from cases in which they had a financial conflict of interest, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal found.
The newspaper’s reporters cross-referenced reams of disclosure forms with dockets to discover cases where judges should have stepped aside because they owned stock in companies before them.
The judges weren’t accused of tipping the scales for personal gain. But under federal ethics law, they should have recused themselves from even the most minor of actions when they owned stock in the companies. Many judges contacted by the paper said they weren’t aware of the conflicts and their stock played no role in their decisions.
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, based in New Orleans, had the most conflicts identified in Louisiana. The newspaper found that he had nine conflicts, including one case where he dismissed a lawsuit over asbestos exposure after the parties came to a settlement.
Retired Eastern District judge Helen Ginger Berrigan also had a conflict identified by the newspaper. The court did not comment on her behalf.
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Across the rest of the state, the newspaper identified five other judges with either one or two conflicts: Brian Jackson and John deGravelles of the Middle District in Baton Rouge, along with S. Maurice Hicks, Dree Drell and Donald Walter of the Western District.
Jackson, deGravelles and Walter all had clerks file notices in the relevant cases stating that their stock ownership did not affect their decisions.
Drell told the Wall Street Journal that he wasn’t aware of a conflict. Hicks declined comment.
Eight out of nine of Africk’s conflicts involved lawsuits where his only involvement was to hand the case to a judge in another city for “multi-district litigation” involving major corporations.
The exception was a 2015 lawsuit where the heirs of a man who worked at the naval air station in Belle Chasse alleged that he contracted mesothelioma because of exposure to asbestos while working as a mechanic on jets built by Boeing and United Technologies.
The case was initially assigned to U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey before he transferred it to Africk, who should have stepped aside because he and his wife owned stock in Boeing and United Technologies. Africk did not rule on any contested motions involving Boeing or United Technologies after he received the case, which was before him for a little under a year, the court record shows.
The judge declined comment, but the clerk of court filed a notice into the court record on Aug. 10 acknowledging that he should have recused himself and stating that his stock ownership “neither affected nor impacted his decisions in this case.” The clerk invited parties to the case to respond to the disclosure by Aug. 25, which none of them did.
The judge’s failure to recuse didn’t draw ire from the attorney representing the airplane mechanic’s heirs, who said that Africk had an “impeccable” reputation.
“I doubt that that had anything to do with any ruling in this case from Judge Africk,” said the lawyer, Mickey Landry. “My experience with him has been that he is very by-the-book, rules on the evidence and the law.”