The Investigators: Gavel Travel - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Gavel Travel: Memphis judge spends thousands on pricey conferences

City Administrative Judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse City Administrative Judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse

(WMC-TV) - There are three elected Memphis city judges who share a travel budget worth thousands, but records show one judge in particular spends most of that money.

Since 2009, City Administrative Judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse has been on two all-expenses-paid trips to the Caribbean, has spent multiple nights in San Diego, San Francisco and Las Vegas, and had a view of the ocean in a two-bedroom suite for two at the Sandestin Beach Resort - all in her quest to continue her legal education at taxpayers' expense.

"First of all, the locations of the trips are not my design," Dorse said in a recent interview with Action News 5, "but I know the Judicial Counsel meets in the winter in some place that is normally a climate controlled, contained place, because it's a national conference."

A national conference - in Jamaica - and another in Puerto Rico. Within U.S. borders, Dorse sought learning at the San Francisco Ritz Carleton.

"That just happened to be the conference hotel," she said.

Action News 5 asked Dorse if she could have chosen not to go to that particular conference.

"I could choose to not go on a lot of the conferences, that's true," she said.

City judges are required to attend at least one "Continuing Legal Education" event each year to keep their license. They pick which one they attend, and pay for it with money set aside in their annual budget for travel.

Dorse picks a lot of them. City records show she attended and was reimbursed for 24 events over a 29 month period.

"The judges' travel budget in general has been over budget the past three years, over the travel budget," Action News 5's Lori Brown said during the interview with Dorse.

"It has not been over budget," Dorse replied.

But figures released by the City of Memphis show otherwise. From fiscal years 2009 through 2011, travel costs were nearly $14,000 dollars over budget. Money had to be pulled from elsewhere in the judges' budget to cover the added expenses."

Dorse's travel expenses accounted for 71 percent of those costs.

"It's an attitude of entitlement," Memphis City Council member Bill Boyd said. "It's a perk, and we just can't afford it."

Boyd said he's tried and failed in the past to trim the travel budget for city judges. But even he was surprised by the totals turned in.

"In 2009, she spent $13,000 dollars," Lori Brown said in an interview with Boyd.

"Excuse me," he replied. "$13,000?"

More than $13,000, actually, of a $15,000 budget shared by three judges.  That year, Dorse went to Jamaica, Atlanta, Boston, New York, San Diego and Las Vegas.

In 2010, Dorse took nine trips. Records show that for a five day conference in New Orleans, she rented an SUV for 10 days, was reimbursed for meals and parking over eight days, and was charged a fee for "NO SHOW" after she arrived a day late to her hotel because she was sick.

The grand total for the New Orleans trip, alone, was almost $2,400.

Tennessee Judge Chris Craft, who is not a city judge, said the state is much tighter with travel expenses for state judges.

"Our conference was in Knoxville in March, and there was not enough money to pay for the hotel," Craft said. "We just all agreed to pay out of our own pockets for hotel expenses."

Memphis CAO George Little signs off on judge travel requests. Because judges are elected, Little said, he has very little authority over their travel expenses.

"So if a judge hands you an expense for a trip overseas, to the Caribbean, to the Ritz Carlton, you have to sign off on it?" Lori Brown asked.

"If it fits within city travel regulations," Little replied. "I have would have to have a good reason, at least other than my own values, at least under the current policies and procedures, to disapprove of that travel."

Travel that, since 2009, has cost taxpayers almost $64,000.

Lori Brown asked Dorse, "What do you want to say to the taxpayer who says, 'Why am I paying for this stuff?'"

"I've given you the answers I intend do," she replied.

Dorse said the benefits of her attending so many conferences are seen in the number of conferences she brings to Memphis - a total of eight over the past 15 years that she says pumped millions into the Memphis economy.

Dorse added that her expenses may be more because she holds leadership roles at some of the conferences. According to records provided by the City of Memphis, Dorse often arrives at a conference one or two days early, and stays one or two days after.

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