The Backstory: Garrett Hazelwood

Following the Money in Louisiana's Court System

In Louisiana, criminal fines and fees pour millions of dollars into Judicial Expense Funds, which judges can spend on anything related to court operations, from staff salaries to luxury car leases. That means judges have financial incentives to set high bail and convict more people. In his new investigation, Louisiana Law Gives Judges a Financial Incentive to Set High Bail and Secure Convictions,” produced in partnership with WWNO and WRKF, Garrett Hazelwood reviewed thousands of financial documents and discovered that some judges are using these funds to pay for expenses like Lexuses and BMWs, Apple Watch bills, and fancy hotel stays. 

In this conversation, we talk to Hazelwood about how he got access to the financial documents for his investigation, how he got in contact with people who faced exorbitant court fees, and the biggest challenges he faced while reporting. 

Paco Alvarez: My first question: what initially inspired your investigation? And how did you become aware of the way that judicial expense funds function in the Louisiana court system? 

Garrett Hazelwood: Initially, my interest was in finding stories, and I had done some previous stories as well, that were looking into who profits from incarceration. And so I was just kind of, as a general overarching theme, looking to put faces and names to some people who are basically benefiting from incarceration. And as I was looking around in Louisiana for kind of specific things to focus on, I came across pretrial incarceration rates. And so that’s when people are locked up before they’ve been sentenced, before they’ve been convicted of anything. And Louisiana has the highest in the nation, the highest rate of pretrial incarceration. And it’s like three times the national average. And so I started just talking to lawyers and public defenders and different people advocates about why that is. And the answer is really just because it’s so expensive to get arrested in Louisiana. And one of the main reasons is bail. And so as I looked at bail, I found that there are these bail fees that go straight back to the judges. And from there I was kind of off and running. 

Alvarez: For the investigation, you reviewed thousands of documents, including audit reports, receipts, financial disclosures and reimbursement requests. How did you get access to those documents? 

Hazelwood: Initially I started with the audit reports, which were available online. So all of that stuff was on the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s website. And every year, each court has to do an audit of their judicial expense funds. And so I looked through those. I mean, each one is like 40 to 80 pages long, and there’s 42 courts. And I’m not a financial reporter. So it was really kind of a steep learning curve to just figure out what I was looking at and then look at all the sources of money that were going into those funds and trace out what laws were, generating that money and what fees were corresponding to them. And, so there was definitely a big learning curve to just figure out what I was looking at and understand the way that these funds get their revenue and then where the money starts going. 

But it’s at a high level in those reports. And so, there’s a new law that has gone into effect that makes it so that each of these courts has to report in more detail and in more standardized terms on what exactly they’re collecting and where the money is going. And so I was able to get those financial reports from the Louisiana Supreme Court. They had posted some online, and then later I did public records requests to get some of the ones from the more recent year that hadn’t been posted yet. And so going through all of that stuff that I was able to kind of identify particular courts and judges and zoom in a little bit more. And then I filed a bunch of public records requests, and that was kind of an iterative process too, of figuring out what, how to ask and who to ask and what exactly to ask for. And so as I started to figure that out with the first few courts that I was looking into, then I was able to send them out more widely and cast a broader net for all the courts that I sort of identified as problematic. 

Alvarez: How did you analyze the data to zero in on specific courts and judges? What kinds of red flags or anomalies did you look for in the reports? 

Hazelwood: One thing is that they have some limits, like there’s a limit on how much you can claim reimbursement for leasing a vehicle. And so one thing I did was look for all the judges who had maxed out that amount. Another thing was just going through all the line items in their budget and seeing, for the expenditures, if there was anything that just seemed weird in there, like there was one for like an internet security system, internet slash security system. So I got records for that to find receipts and figure out exactly what that was. There was another for like an iPad, Apple Watch. And so I got records for those and found out what that was. And, it’s standardized enough that you can look through. And basically as you look at all the expenditures for each court, you can see, like, okay, most of them are charging for this thing. Most of them are charging for that thing. And when there were anomalies, when there were different things that jumped out, that was definitely a big red flag. 

And then the other one was really just, how much money was being spent. And so some of the courts just far outspent others by exponential amounts. And so those I definitely focused on. And then the other thing was some courts were getting a huge percentage of their money for these funds through bail fees in particular. And so that was like another red flag that caused me to look more carefully and then pull receipts from those courts. 

Alvarez: What was the most surprising discovery in the documents? 

Hazelwood:  I think I was kind of, at various points, I was looking for, like, a smoking gun, you know, find a judge who bought some crazy thing with his expense account. And I never did find that. And I think that really, almost everything that I found was legal. And they can use these funds to buy whatever the hell they want really. But the thing that I kept being surprised by over and over is just that there was like, no oversight and, well, very little oversight, I should say, and very little accountability. And so many errors, like in these audits; they put out these annual audits, they’re posted publicly like there’s a CPA [certified public accountant] who does them. There would be line items that would look like, oh, there’s a bunch of money here that went for this thing. And then I would get receipts from the court and they’d be able to show me that actually the audit had an error in it, and that there was like a number that got transcribed wrong or something. And that happened over and over again. And for that I would like, do a public records request for receipts for something, and they would have a few of the receipts, but not all of them. And I found over and over again, like sloppy bookkeeping errors in the audits, like administrators not being able to account for the money that was being spent. And that wasn’t like a huge part of what we actually wrote in the story. But it was something that I just found again and again is that there is a shocking lack of anybody really keeping track of where the money is going and when they do, it’s really kind of ad hoc. 

Alvarez: What were your biggest challenges while reporting? Did you face any pushback from the courts you were reporting on? 

Hazelwood: It was interesting. There was one judge who got snippy with me, and then there was a judicial administrator who was really – you know I would call and identify myself as a reporter and she would hang up the phone. I’d have to, like, call back and, you know, try and get her on the phone and talk to her supervisor. And so there were some things where, at times, people were pushing back. There’s also kind of just this, like, I think of it like filing an insurance claim or something where you put in a public records request and they just deny you the first time, and then you have to come back and say, like, you actually have to give me this by law and argue with them a little bit over it. And so there was a little bit of that. I was able to get most of what I asked for. 

I was surprised that several of the judges were just willing to chat and were, like, really candid with me. And I think it was like a feature of the fact that they know that none of this stuff is, is like, illegal and that the bar for them being disciplined or for anything happening is super high. They have to really do something. They have to spend the money in ways that are really outrageous. But the law gives them plenty of freedom to use it as they see fit. So I think that there was an openness to talking about it because it’s not something that they think is wrong or a secret. It’s just the way the system works in their eyes. And so they just go along with it. 

But in terms of a really big challenge, I think just kind of the complexity of the court system and the general like the fact that Louisiana’s court system is super balkanized. So there’s not much central governance of the judiciary. There is the Louisiana Supreme Court that is in charge. But each court that I looked at has its own system of bookkeeping that they call their fees a certain thing that other courts have their own names for. They just have a different way of doing things. And so I would think, okay, there’s this law that applies to the other courts. And so this money should have been going into this fund. And this guy that I spoke to must have been charged that fee. And then I would look and he actually wasn’t charged that fee because of some different way that they had of doing things, the money was going into a different pot or something. So just really tracing out how each court worked and figuring out the nuances of all those different legal processes and administrative processes was infuriating and times and definitely like a big challenge. 

Alvarez: You talked to several people who either are currently or formerly were in jail and have been impacted by exorbitant court fees. How did you get in contact with your sources, and how did the bail system and its connections to the expense funds affect them? 

Hazelwood: Getting in touch with people, who’d been affected was definitely, if not the biggest challenge, the second biggest challenge, because the people I wanted to talk to are the people who are most affected by these fines and fees are the poorest people, and they’re the people who are sort of like, don’t have a cell phone and don’t have an internet presence and are really living paycheck to paycheck, and, are incarcerated. And so tracking down the people that had been affected was a real challenge. And, I mean, the first guy that I found was Kade Duplechin, and I just went and sat in court and was watching court proceedings to kind of get my bearings and figure out how things looked in a courtroom as this stuff was happening. And I saw him get sentenced for a parole violation. So he had already been jailed and then had been out and violate his parole. And one of the ways he violated his parole was that he didn’t pay his fees. And so he owed like $5,000 in court fees. And he was unhoused. And so it was just like seeing how quickly everything moved, seeing how he had been brought in, like in chains and was sitting there in a striped jumpsuit. And his public defender, you know, didn’t put up any fight. It was just yeah, like he hasn’t paid his fees, like he’s guilty and he’s going to get sentenced. But like, please be a little bit lenient with him, judge, because he doesn’t have a home, he’s been living on the streets and. 

Later, I wrote a letter to him in jail and was able to get a hold of him that way. Actually, having written a letter to him and just, like, reached out, this happened over and over again in the reporting. I reached out to people in jail and they would get back to me, or wouldn’t get back to me but would pass along the letter to other people. And so I started getting a bunch of calls, like basically as my number was circulating through these jails, a lot of people started calling me, and all of them had compelling stories. Just trying to figure out who fits this particular project that I’m working on and try to hear them out. And also it’s a heavy thing when somebody comes to you with something, like they’ve been served some really big injustice and they need help. And so I think just yeah, talking to a lot of different people and trying to respect their time and stories, was a big challenge, something that I was really like dealing with throughout the reporting process. 

And I found the other guy, Vermondio ultimately from combing through online court records because I was looking for people specifically who had had really high bails set against them in this one court. And he luckily had written a letter to the DA and was basically complaining and saying that he wanted to, like, get his story out there to the press and that he had been wrongfully in prison for this thing. And, so he was really wanting to talk to somebody. And I was able to get him on the phone. And we started a correspondence that way. 

But every step of the way to come to the truth on like court records, to make the jailhouse calls, to just like, put money on, on these guys’ accounts so that they can message me, through like the online messaging thing, it’s expensive. And so there’s like, even as I’m reporting on these fines and fees, like a challenge in the reporting is that I need to like, pay money for all of these things. And so be judicious about where I’m pouring money into this, like into communicating people with people. So it was really eye opening, I think, to just see how expensive it is for these guys to speak to the outside world, to even talk to their families, much less a reporter. 

Alvarez: Had they had people been aware of like the fact that, like, the fees that were keeping them in jail were also like going to these like expense funds? Or is that like, is that like a commonly known thing?

Hazelwood: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I think there’s a general sense among a lot of people who are in jail in Louisiana that they’re being bled for money. Because like I said, every step of the way, they’re being fined and fee and, assess these fees. And so they know that. They know that they’re being, like, bled dry, but they didn’t know about the judges. And so everyone I spoke to was like unsurprised but didn’t didn’t know. They were just like, yeah, of course. But you know, we didn’t know that the judges were actually pocketing money from this. 

Alvarez: Yeah. And since the investigation has come out, what’s the reaction been? Have you heard from any of the judges or any of the other sources you spoke to? 

Hazelwood: I heard from a couple of the judges who said that they appreciated the story, actually, and which I was surprised by. I didn’t expect a positive reception, but I think they felt fairly treated. And, so I did. I got some positive feedback from judges, which was a surprise. And then there were like 4 or 5 different local outlets that republished it. And it got into some newsletters. There was definitely some buzz on Twitter. 

And then Kade, he was the one who had been unhoused and charged like $5,000 in fees. He is out of jail now and is living with family and just enrolled in college classes. And, he actually sent me a picture of his employee of the month like a placard at his work. He’s got a job now, and we’ve been staying a little bit in touch, and it sounds like he’s doing really well, and he’s like, he’s getting back on his feet.

About the reporter