Monday, November 3, 2008
Carmel on the Case: Price of Justice
The state budget crunch has forced Florida's courts to cut $44 million and eliminate 280 jobs statewide. Yet, Seven's investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero found out the Price of Justice can be pretty high when it comes to spending public money.
WSVN -- From the Gold Coast to the Gulf Coast, we found Florida judges enjoying luxury resorts on state money.
Seven News was at a conference for county judges in Naples over the summer and another for circuit court judges in Fort Lauderdale in September.
The meetings are designed for educational purposes, but there's apparently time for more than learning. We couldn't help but wonder why spend money this way when there's less money and fewer people to operate our courts.
Lisa Goodner: "That's a good question."
That's the voice of Lisa Goodner, the State Courts Administrator. She declined an on camera interview but agreed to talk to us by phone. Her department runs the conferences.
Lisa Goodner: "The hotels that we chose are typically chosen because they have the meeting space that we need to accommodate these large groups of judges."
Lisa Goodner: "The judicial education programs are considered to be very important."
They're also very expensive. Records obtained by Seven News show nearly $750,000 will be spent by the state this year to educate judges at luxury resorts.
Meals cost of $72,000. Hotel rooms run more than $200,000, but Goodner says they get great rates.
Lisa Goodner: "We're able to negotiate a very good rate at booking these hotels because we're there in the seasons where they don't have the tourist traffic that they typically would have."
The judges are also paid by the state for parking, mileage and air travel. Those costs are not just from judges who have to travel a long distance. At the Circuit Court Conference in Fort Lauderdale, even some Miami-Dade judges stayed overnight. Their rooms and meals cost $14,000. Lisa Goodner says it's allowed.
Lisa Goodner: "That's determined based typically on the amount of local traffic congestion there is."
We wanted to know what our chief judges thought about these expenses, given the current economic climate.
But in Miami-Dade, where 14 people were laid off due to budget cuts, the chief judge turned down our request for an interview. In Broward, where 15 people have been laid off, the chief judge also declined. In Palm Beach County where 10 people have been let go, the answer was the same, thanks, but no thanks.
Philip Blumel: "Seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money. It's several people's jobs."
Philip Blumel is with the Florida Taxpayers Union, an organization that tracks public spending. He says you wouldn't expect judges to meet in a broom closet, but...
Philip Blumel: "At the same time, it doesn't mean that you have to have these conferences held at five star resorts, so it definitely stands out as something that needs to be investigated."
Even some judges are uncomfortable with this price of justice. One sent me the following statement: "It's not right to send the top dogs to the Ritz, while laying off the worker bees. Jobs are more important than fancy conferences."
Carmel Cafiero: "And the state now says it plans to cut the number of conferences in half for 2009. However, next month there are two more conferences scheduled for Jacksonville. And guess what? They're both at luxury resorts."
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