Caretaker accused of financially exploiting federal judge

AP News
Posted: Apr 19, 2017 4:50 PM
Caretaker accused of financially exploiting federal judge

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana authorities are investigating allegations that a personal assistant financially exploited a federal judge whose alcoholism is so severe that a colleague asked a court to rule she cannot take care of herself.

A man described as a "caretaker" for U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi is accused of using her credit cards and checking account to rack up more than $51,000 in debt, including checks purportedly signed by Minaldi while she was getting substance abuse treatment in Florida earlier this year, according to newly released court records and a police report.

Calcasieu Parish prosecutors have sought a warrant to arrest the suspect, a 28-year-old man, on charges of forgery and unauthorized use of an access card, according to a document dated April 12. First Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Killingsworth said the man hadn't been arrested or formally charged yet as of Tuesday.

"We do have a case, and we are moving forward on a case," Killingsworth said.

Minaldi has been diagnosed with a brain disorder linked to alcohol abuse, records show, and she has been on medical leave since late December. An Associated Press investigation revealed Minaldi's pattern of unusual behavior on the bench preceding her mysterious removal from a string of cases last year.

Court records unsealed last week say the chief judge for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals required Minaldi to complete at least 90 days of substance abuse treatment. Minaldi's assistant drove her from Lake Charles to a Florida rehab facility, arriving there on Jan. 4, according to one of the newly released records.

U.S. Magistrate Kathleen Kay, a longtime friend and colleague of Minaldi, filed a lawsuit last month challenging Minaldi's physical and mental capacity to manage her personal and financial affairs. In a court filing, Kay said her review of Minaldi's finances "showed quite clearly that (she) had been financially exploited" by the man described both as a caretaker and personal assistant.

Kay said she "cannot state that all charges by the 'caretaker' were done without (Minaldi's) knowledge or permission or were not for her benefit but some clearly were, particularly charges made by him after (her) admission to (rehab)." Kay also said she found checks purportedly signed by Minaldi on dates when she was being treated in Florida.

Minaldi lives in Lake Charles and has served as a federal judge in the west Louisiana city since 2003. Kay has served as a magistrate under Minaldi for the past decade.

A detective from the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office met with Kay on March 14 to discuss the check forgery and credit card misuse allegations involving Minaldi's finances, according to a police report. A spokeswoman for the sheriff's office said she couldn't disclose any details of that investigation.

Minaldi told reporters in Lake Charles last Friday that she had an assistant "who was not really taking care of me and basically dumped me at the facility in Florida." She said he had known him for "quite a while," trusted him and had offered to let him stay at her home in exchange for his help around the house.

"Unfortunately, he took care of himself rather than taking care of my issues," she said.

Glen Vamvoras, one of Minaldi's attorneys, said the assistant doesn't have any connection to the federal courts.

"He took advantage of her, big time," Vamvoras said.

Minaldi, a prosecutor before she became a judge, is fighting Kay's court challenge and insists she can handle her own affairs. She gave power of attorney to Kay in 2007 but revoked it two days after Kay filed her March 16 lawsuit.

Minaldi also said she doesn't believe any cases she handled are vulnerable to challenges now that her alcoholism has been disclosed.

"If there ever was an indication that I was unable to handle my duties because of alcohol — either the after-effects or current effects — proceedings did not go forward," she told reporters last Friday.

Court officials haven't explained Minaldi's removal from several cases last year.

In February 2016, Minaldi was pulled off a man's fraud case following a series of mistakes in routine trial procedures.

The next month, Minaldi was removed from criminal cases against a sheriff and several subordinates. The order came four days after Minaldi abruptly adjourned a hearing to accept guilty pleas by two sheriff's deputies, who wound up pleading guilty later that same day before another judge in another courthouse.

On Dec. 6, a criminal trial in Minaldi's courtroom was cut short without explanation before a jury could be picked to hear a child pornography case. That case — and dozens of others originally assigned to Minaldi — have been transferred to other judges.