Please allow me to warmly welcome Sonja and Ike Spears to Slabbed.

First we heard the rumors and then Fox 8 gave us a teaser. By then, we also knew that Lee Zurich had not been sitting on his rear end during his time between on air gigs doing the news in New Orleans. It is said work is the bane of the blogging class and that was certainly true for me yesterday as the media frenzy on this story began in earnest as readers began emailing me the links. First was a WDSU story. Then came a more in-depth Times Picayune report and then WWL’s coverage. As is the case many times, the best was saved for last and that was Lee Zurich’s report for Fox 8. For some background for our out of area readers, I’ll start with the Laura Maggi’s Times Picayune report as we’ll also save the best for last:

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has subpoenaed documents that track the schedule, payment and even the movements of Sonja M. Spears, who draws a local salary as a 1st City Court judge while living part of the time in Massachusetts, where her children attend school……….

Investigators are simply seeking to determine how often Spears shows up to work. Public records show Spears and her husband, attorney Ike Spears, own a $1.3 million house in the Boston suburb of Needham.

Records obtained by The Times-Picayune also show that Spears applied for, and was granted, medical leave from April 7 to May 6, 2008, as well as Jan. 26 to March 30, 2009. In both cases, Spears told the Louisiana Supreme Court that she needed to undergo surgery, and replacement, or ad hoc, judges were assigned to her court.

I remembered the Spears family name but it wasn’t from her sister-in-law as we continue:

Spears’ sister-in-law, Glenda Spears, was permanently disbarred in 2007 as a result of her conviction three years earlier for taking bribes to help people convicted on drug-related charges win early release from probation.

Determined to figure out how the name rang a bell a readers gave me a clue:

Hubby “Ike Spears does insurance defense work for State Farm.”

Now mentioning Ed Rust and his band of corporate predators from Bloomington here on Slabbed is like waving a red cape in front of a bull but that still isn’t where I remembered the name. I googled around and bingo I found it in Dollar Bill Jefferson and his family criminal enterprise as Ike Spears was evidently the Jefferson family consigliere. Gordon Russell at the Times Picayune gives us that background:

Attorney Ike Spears has a conflict of interest and therefore cannot represent political strategist Mose Jefferson and his sister, 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson, in their upcoming trial on charges that they looted a group of publicly financed charities, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled Tuesday.

Prosecutors from U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office had sought Spears’ removal, saying he has represented numerous members of the Jefferson family as the clan — whose most prominent member is U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, brother to Mose and Betty — became ensnared in a series of corruption investigations.

Now it all came back as Ike was a card-carrying member of the Jefferson political machine which has since been dismantled by the Department of Justice. With Dollar Bill’s ability to generate largess impaired we gain additional color on why the move to the Boston made sense for the Spears. Next up is WWL Channel 4  as we introduce some interesting facets in the latest scandal attached to the Spears family name:

Mounting questions about where New Orleans First City Court Judge Sonja Spears lives come with some mounting tax bills for the judge, and her husband, local attorney Ike Spears.

Those tax bills contained some interesting nuggets so I’ll circle back to that in Lee Zurich’s report but let’s continue with WWL as we gain even more clarity on why moving to the Boston area made even more sense for the Spears family:

That may be because Judge Spears appears to be living at least part of the time at a home she and her husband own in Needham, Massachusetts. Spears is originally from Massachusetts and has her children enrolled in school there.

A county assessor web page shows the house the Spears purchased in the Boston suburb of Needham in May 2007, for $1.4 million. According to mortgage documents, the Spears made a $572,000 downpayment on the 5,000 square foot home, leaving a mortgage of more than $850,000.

As further proof of her ties to the area, an item in a 2008 school alumni magazine from Beaver Country Day School, where Spears graduated, reports that the judge “moved her family from New Orleans to Needham last summer.” The article continues, “She (Spears) writes ‘Our boys are thrilled to be back at Beaver (school).’”

The WWL report contains a statement from Mrs Spears and indeed as our own commenters pointed out none of this was a secret so in print the excuses sound good. But a picture is worth a thousand words and Lee Zurich got plenty of them as it appears Fox 8 used a private investigator to follow Judge Spears around for almost 3 months and what Zurich found was damning.  WordPress does not support video embeds using the Fox 8 platform but those readers wanting to see the video report which is well worth the watch can find almost 15 minutes of coverage in 2 parts by clicking here and here. I’ll highlight the companion print story and add some analysis as we continue:

Two-time elected Judge Sonja Spears has been elusive for a public official. Spears is one of four sitting judges in a court that handles civil matters under $25,000. The judgeship is full-time, and according to Spears’ financial disclosure filing, she makes nearly $136,000 year.

Tracking down Spears has been tough because, according to a FOX 8 investigation, she hasn’t spent much time in court. FOX 8 has been to First City Court every day since February 1, mostly between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., when court should be in session. Spears has only been there seven times in three months, though she certainly could have been there more in her chambers out of public sight.

FOX 8 had to travel halfway across the country to Boston, Massachusetts to speak to Spears, only to be turned away when confronted about what she has been doing, and where she has been, during the past three months. The judge refused to answer questions and referred FOX 8 to a public relations representative…………………….

Each day FOX 8 tracked the judge, she left the house around 7:30 a.m. To take her two sons to Beaver Country Day school in Chestnut Hill, Mass. The school’s website shows that tuition is $35,000 per year, per student.

And apparently, the Spears’ kids have been going there for a few years. A copy of the 2007 student directory lists both children as students. It shows Sonja and Isaiah spears as their parents, with their Massachusetts address and phone number.

Judge Spears is actually a graduate of this school and is still active. She is one of 16 members on the school’s board of trustees.

It gets better though as Lee explains:

Just two weeks ago, Judge Spears spent three and a half days in court. Each day, she didn’t drive to work. She was picked up three afternoons and dropped off. On Thursday afternoon of that week, Judge Spears was driven to Armstrong Airport. And FOX 8 followed her – all the way to Boston, and as she got off the plane, got into her car, and the next day, drove her kids to school. The car, with a Massachusetts license plate, is registered in Sonja Spears’ name.

To help track the judge, FOX 8 wanted to see how often she entered New Orleans Civil District Court. Everyone who works at the courthouse, even judges, is issued a swipe card to get in and out of the building. Each card is said to have the person’s name and picture on it. FOX 8 has not seen Judge Spears’ card.

But when FOX 8 received the judge’s swipe card records, even more questions came up.

The confrontation with Judge Spears in her kids’ school parking lot near Boston happened a little after 9 a.m. New Orleans time on Thursday, April 29. At the same time FOX 8 was trying to get some answers, Civil District Court records show someone else was using the judge’s swipe card at 9:07 a.m. to enter the New Orleans courthouse.

And when FOX 8 tracked her a week earlier on the morning of April 23 in Massachusetts, again someone else used Judge Spears swipe card to enter Civil District Court – twice in the same day.

And what did the others Judges in 1st CIty Court have to say about this? Not much as we continue:

FOX 8 tried to get an interview with all of the First City Court judges for this story. One reason is many of the days we went to Judge Spears’ courtroom, a sign said her cases would be heard in one of the other sections.

Initially, Judge Charles Imbornone told us he would do an interview. He called us twice, but we never heard from him again.

Instead, FOX 8 was contacted by the “Tanzie” Judge Spears referred to during the attempted interview. Tanzie Jones is a public relations contractor the judges hired the day after FOX 8 made its interview request by e-mail.

I wondered if Judge Imbornone is related to Newell Normand’s drunk former deputy Dominick, whom we welcomed to Slabbed earlier this year as we continue as Fox 8 introduces us to another talking head from the Ivory tower at Loyola:

But the workings of First City Court certainly raise even more questions since it seems a judge has been able to keep up with her docket while living part of her life in another part of the country.

“Why do we have so many judges if judges don’t have to go to work on a regular basis,” Raspanti questioned.

Attendance and residency issues aren’t the only potential problems the Spears faces. A federal tax lien shows Ike and Sonja Spears owe nearly $425,000 in back taxes. That lien is on their New Orleans home. The couple has a similar one on their Massachusetts house too.

Loyola business professor and certified public accountant Patrick Lynch says the Internal Revenue Service has eight years left to sell the property. He’s surprised they haven’t done it yet.

“They owe the federal government 400,000 and plus dollars. They have been made aware that they owe it. In fact the federal government has demanded payment and they haven’t responded, so they have filed lien on all of their property,” Lynch said.

It is relatively rare that IRS seizes non- monetary assets, especially a house in non criminal case, but those tax liens caught my eye. It is a little known fact that elected officials are among the worst for not filing or paying their taxes and that is has been obvious to me in my own practice so that is not necessarily as unusual as it is a sad fact so the Spears are not on unique ground there. However, in part 2 of the video report the Louisiana state tax liens were flashed across the screen. I immediately noticed the big year for Louisiana was 2006 which makes sense as Hubby Ike was no doubt flush with cash he made representing State Farm in court after Katrina helping them hose over homeless policyholders. It appears he also didn’t properly consider Uncle Sam’s cut of the action as we continue:

City records show the Spears still own a property in English Turn, according to the city’s website. They are two years late paying property taxes, owing $2,000. The city says they are also two years late on an empty lot on Fontainebleau Drive. The delinquent bill is almost $3,800. And, at a home on Hickory Avenue owned by the judge, the property tax bill has not been paid in four years. The delinquent bill is almost $10,000. All totaled, city records show the Spears owe almost $16,000 in late property taxes.

And there’s more. Ike Spears owns a law firm called Spears and Spears. That firm is late paying taxes on three properties. City records show Ike Spears’ firm owes almost $32,000 in back taxes.

I submit them tax bills are a target rich environment. I’m not a NOLA area real estate expert but did the fact that 2 years worth of taxes on their property in English Turn was only around $2,000 mean anything to anyone else? And what about homestead exemption? Are they claiming it both places because I know it is worth a bunch of money in Louisiana and property taxes in Massachusetts aren’t cheap as we continue and are reminded of the unfolding political scandal in Jefferson Parish:

And there’s more. Ike Spears owns a law firm called Spears and Spears. That firm is late paying taxes on three properties. City records show Ike Spears’ firm owes almost $32,000 in back taxes.

At the same time Ike Spears is earning money from the parish, employed in the same building where his wife should be working full-time. Civil District Court records show Ike Spears makes $30,000 a year as a part-time staff attorney for the recorder of mortgages.

A 2003 memo says all staff attorneys must have a signed contract. FOX 8 found one for another attorney on staff, but was told Ike Spears’ $30,000 contract doesn’t exist.

Our sources have indicated the problems with Judge Spears are the tip of the iceberg in this story. I feel certain we’ll have more here on Slabbed as it develops. Kudos to Lee Zurich for a job well done.

The subpoena can be found here.

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2 thoughts on “Please allow me to warmly welcome Sonja and Ike Spears to Slabbed.”

  1. You really have to wonder if Katrina – the windstorm – had the power to blow away the moral compass of the judiciary sitting in New Orleans or if the wind just blew the cover and revealed the lack of same.

    If we gave points for creativity, this scheme would be the hands-down winner over the “cash in the freezer” or “pulling the plug and flooding JP”. It’s hard for me to believe anyone thought commuting from Massachusetts would go undetected.

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