Supreme Court removes Judge Joan Benge from the 24th Judicial Distrct Court

By Paul Purpura
The Times-Picayune
November 6, 2009

Joan Benge, a judge on the 24th Judicial District Court bench since 2001, was removed from office today by the state Supreme Court, which found she violated judicial ethics and the state constitution as a rookie jurist in connection with the federal investigation of courthouse corruption, known as Wrinkled Robe.

Snagged in the FBI's 'Wrinkled Robe' investigation of corruption at the Jefferson Parish Courthouse, Benge appeared before the high court to dispute the Judiciary Commission's charge that she awarded a judgment in a personal injury lawsuit for reasons other than the evidence in the November 2001 trial. She was removed from the bench on Friday.

"After a thorough review of the law and the facts in this matter, we find that the charge against Judge Benge was proven by clear and convincing evidence and order that Judge Benge be removed from office and that her office be declared vacant," Chief Justice Catherine Kimball wrote in the 43-page opinion.

The Supreme Court, whose decision was unanimous, left open the possibility that Benge lose her license to practice law.

Benge, of Kenner, was accused of wrongly ruling on a case before her court in 2001, months after she was elected, in which she gave a monetary award in a personal injury case for reasons unrelated to the evidence.

The FBI, which was early in its Wrinkled Robe investigation, intercepted a phone conversation between Benge and former Judge Ronald Bodenheimer, in which he urged her to award Phillip Demma a monetary award in his lawsuit against State Farm. Demma, then a reserve Jefferson Parish deputy, claimed he broke a tooth in a car wreck in Metairie in 1998.

Benge, who was elected without opposition in November to her third term, denied wrong doing, saying she ruled on the case based on the facts. She presided over cases in the court's Division A as late as this week and could not be reached immediately for comment.

The Judiciary Commission, an arm of the state Supreme Court that investigates judicial misconduct and recommended Benge's removal, opened a file on her in April 2003, in response to a report in The Times-Picayune about Demma's guilty plea in federal court to charges that included his admission he conspired to have his civil case fixed.

Demma sought an award of more than $20,000, but Benge, after presiding over the one-day bench trial, later gave him $4,275.

In the Nov. 29, 2001 telephone conversation with Bodenheimer, which the FBI recorded, Benge said she was leaning toward "zeroing" the case, meaning she'd award Demma nothing. Bodenheimer in turn urged her to rule favorably to Demma, saying he'd "be there for you."

Bodenheimer, who pleaded guilty to federal charges unrelated to the Demma case and served 43 months in prison, said in an affidavit this year he tried to influence Benge's decision but was unsuccessful.

Benge said Bodenheimer was her mentor on the bench, and was her supervisor when they both were prosecutors at the Jefferson Parish district attorney's office.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office did not pursue criminal charges against Benge but did share investigative information with the Judiciary Commission related to the case for review of possible ethical violations.

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