Judges obtain court fees for unrestricted spending

CHIEF JUDGE Daniel “Danny” Ellender appears before the Ouachita Parish Police Jury to request $125,000 from parish court revenues to spend however court officials see fit.

Fourth Judicial District Court judges obtained permission earlier this week to appropriate another $125,000 from parish court revenues to spend however court officials see fit.

Chief Judge Daniel “Danny” Ellender and retired Judge Benjamin “Ben” Jones, who serves as the court administrator, made their request to the Ouachita Parish Police Jury. The Police Jury, which oversees the Court Fees Fund for the district court, approved the reallocation during its regular meeting Monday.

According to Ellender, the district court needed money from the parish fund to upgrade certain equipment in the courthouse in light of a recent cyber security incident that exposed hundreds of district court documents.

“We had a cyber security incident,” Ellender said. “This was an unforeseen expense, but we need to upgrade some equipment because of what has happened.”

As of Tuesday, the district court’s website, www.4jdc.com, was down.

Earlier this month, Ellender announced that law enforcement authorities were investigating the cyber security breach at the court.

As reported by InfoSecurity Magazine, the district court appeared to be the victim of an attack earlier this month by a ransomware known as Conti.

Ransomware is malware deployed to seize someone’s data with the threat to either publish the data or hold it hostage until a ransom is paid.

After the incident at the district court, hundreds of documents that appear to have been taken from certain judges’ computers were published on the dark web.

After the Police Jury’s meeting, Assistant District Attorney Jay Mitchell pointed out that state law allowed the district court to request the allocation from the parish fund.

The district court already received $125,000 from the Court Fees Fund earlier this year, bringing the total amount of money reallocated to the court to $250,000.

Under the Police Jury’s administration, the Court Fees Fund covers the cost of paying law enforcement officers to testify in criminal proceedings.

Though Ellender referred to the funds as having a dedicated purpose, The Ouachita Citizen confirmed the allocated money would be transferred from the Court Fees Fund to the Judicial Expense Fund.

Once in the Judicial Expense Fund, the money would not be restricted for certain purposes.

The state law allowing the transfer was approved by the state Legislature during the 2018 regular legislative session. Then-state Rep. Katrina Jackson sponsored the legislation, and several of her colleagues in northeastern Louisiana cosponsored the legislation including now-Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Marcus Hunter.

“The legislation itself allows the court to access the excess amounts,” said Ellender, referring to the fund balance after accounting for expenditures during the prior year.

Police Jury budget documents show the district court is expected to continue drawing down the Court Fees Fund each year to prop up its own finances.

Police jurors Scotty Robinson and Jack Clampit questioned why the district court needed to obtain permission for the allocation in light of the changes to state law.

“Is this perpetual?” Robinson said. “Or is this something you have to come back to us each time?”

According to Mitchell, any transfer of parish funds needed authorization.

“The funds are held by the Ouachita Parish Police Jury, and I would expect the treasurer doesn’t want to turn over money from your accounts without your authorization,” Mitchell said.

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