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Court weighs lawsuit over ties between ankle-monitoring firm, New Orleans judge

Two men say a former New Orleans judge forced them to use and pay for ankle monitors from ETOH, a company owned by the judge’s former law partner

By Matt Sledge
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — Two former defendants in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court sought to revive their lawsuit against a politically-connected ankle monitoring company at the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday.

The two men say a former New Orleans judge forced them to use and pay for ankle monitors from ETOH, a company owned by the judge’s former law partner and campaign contributor. But a federal judge ruled last year that the men had not met the high legal standard to show bias from campaign contributions.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier had it wrong, lawyer Jaba Tsitsuashvili, who represented the men, told three circuit judges.

“The complaint plausibly alleges both the appearance of bias and actual bias,” said Tsitsuashvili, of the non-profit Institute for Justice. “At ETOH’s behest, the judge essentially acted as the company’s de-facto debt collector.”

Judge’s ties questioned

Wearing a dark shirt and glasses, former criminal court defendant Hakeem Meade watched as the hearing played out in the 5th Circuit’s wood-paneled West Courtroom.

Two years ago, he and another former defendant sued Judge Paul Bonin and ETOH, alleging that they were coerced into using the company’s ankle monitoring service while out on bail ahead of trial.

Bonin did not tell Meade that ETOH was co-owned by attorney Leonard Levenson, a longtime friend of Bonin’s who had donated to his judicial campaign.

Yet while Meade’s lawyers argued that Bonin essentially threatened him with jail time for failing to pay $600 in fees, Barbier tossed the case before trial.

In his decision last year, the Bill Clinton appointee said that Meade hadn’t shown that this was the “exceptional” case where it was highly likely that campaign contributions created an opportunity for bias.

Nevertheless, the lawsuit highlighted the local court system’s heavy reliance on unregulated private ankle-monitoring firms. Under that system, defendants must pay companies for their monitoring services in order to remain free before trial. One expert recently said the ankle monitor industry is “like the wild west.”

Opening the flood gates?

Bonin retired in 2020, leaving only ETOH as a defendant to the federal civil lawsuit. Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor representing the company, warned the 5th Circuit panel that allowing criminal defendants to claim bias on the basis of campaign contributions alone would open the “flood gates” to similar challenges.

Meade failed to show that Bonin stood to gain from steering people to ETOH, Ciolino said.

“There is no allegation that there is some future benefit,” said Ciolino. “The only allegations are to past business relationships.”

More than money, lawyer says

Tsitsuashvili said there was much more to it than that. There was also the fact that Bonin regularly took actions on the company’s behalf, he said.

Yet two judges asked questions about how closely ETOH could really be linked to Bonin and his courtroom decisions. At one point, Judge Don Willett, a Trump appointee, asked if the “sum total” of the connections between Bonin and the company were the campaign contributions and Bonin’s time as law partner to Levenson.

Tsitsuashvili said there was at least one ongoing link: Bonin’s campaign had an outstanding loan from ETOH.

Meanwhile, Judge Priscilla Richman, a George W. Bush appointee, asked why ETOH should be held responsible for Bonin’s decisions on the bench.

Tsitsuashvili said the company was serving as a “state actor” when it monitored defendants’ movements, and that records show it regularly emailed Bonin a list of delinquent clients.

Jacques L. Wiener, a George H.W. Bush appointee, was the third judge on the panel, which is set to issue a written ruling at a later date.