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Lawyers in Judge's Impeachment Mount Defense

U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous, for the Eastern District of Louisiana, listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Sep. 13, 2010, during a Senate Impeachment Committee hearing to hear arguments and receive evidence presented by the parties during his impeachment trial.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Defense attorneys for a Louisiana judge facing an impeachment trial in Congress began trying to chip away at the case against him, arguing that money and other favors he accepted were simply part of the culture of a tight-knit New Orleans-area legal community.

After three days laying out its case, the House team prosecuting U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous rested Wednesday evening, leaving Porteous' attorneys to begin calling their own witnesses.

Their first was Porteous' son, Timothy Porteous, who said two lawyers gave the judge thousands of dollars in cash over the years only because they were close family friends who once practiced law together.

Another prosecution witness, Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor specializing in judicial ethics, said that Louisiana standards for judges accepting meals and gifts from lawyers were loose and unclear until recent revisions to the law.

Judges routinely dined on lawyers' tabs at expensive restaurants. "That's just the way things worked," Ciolino said.

The House voted unanimously in March to bring impeachment charges against Porteous. A two-thirds vote is needed in the Senate to convict him.

House prosecutors allege that Porteous was racking up debt as he struggled with drinking and gambling. They say he began accepting cash and other favors from people with business before his court, beginning with his time as a state judge and continuing after he was appointed to the federal bench in 1994.

Two New Orleans-area attorneys who once worked with Porteous testified that they gave the judge thousands of dollars in cash gifts while he was a judge, including about $2,000 stuffed in an envelope in 1999, just before Porteous decided a major civil case in their client's favor. The attorneys also said Porteous frequently sent court-appointed work to their firm with the expectation that they would return some of the fees to the judge.

In addition, the lawyer Porteous hired for his 2001 bankruptcy discussed how he and Porteous initially filed the judge's bankruptcy under a made-up name, with a hastily arranged post office box as his address, to avoid publicity. House investigators say Porteous also lied about his debts and assets in an effort to lower his bankruptcy payments.

New Orleans bail bondsman Louis Marcotte also described a long-standing relationship in which Marcotte routinely took Porteous to lavish meals at French Quarter restaurants and offered his employees to work on Porteous' cars and home. In return, Porteous manipulated bond amounts for defendants to give Marcotte the highest fees possible, said Marcotte, who served 18 months in prison on related corruption charges. Porteous also helped erase criminal convictions for two of Marcotte's employees, he said.

The Senate trial is the first since the 1999 case against former President Bill Clinton. Porteous, who was appointed by Clinton, would be just the eighth judge to be impeached and convicted by Congress, and the first in more than 20 years.

The Senate panel hearing the case, chaired by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., planned to break until next week, with one or two more days of testimony expected. The committee will present the evidence to the full Senate later this year, with a final vote on Porteous' fate likely near the end of the year.

Porteous' attorney, Jonathan Turley, told the committee in opening arguments that 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.