Pact sets maximum $780,000 a year for legal services
Sheriff Marlin Gusman recently renegotiated his controversial contract with a law firm that for years has been paid a flat fee of $68,000 every two weeks, regardless of how much work it did for his office.
He revealed his new arrangement during a New Orleans City Council hearing Thursday on how much money he needs to run the city’s jail.
The law firm, Usry, Weeks & Matthews, will bill the sheriff at a rate of $175 an hour and, for the first time, will count the number of hours its lawyers actually work for him, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The new contract, signed last week, caps the potential payment at $65,000 a month, or $780,000 a year. That is about $1 million a year less than the amount he has been paying under the previous contract.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry said the number budgeted for the firm remains extraordinarily high, despite having been cut by more than half.
“That’s $2,137 a day, 365 days a year,” said Guidry, herself a lawyer. “That’s still incredibly high. You could have your own law firm — and more — with that.”
Gusman replied that the number on the budget represents the maximum possible payment, and that the actual billing could be far less.
To reach $65,000 a month, the firm’s lawyers would have to work 371.5 hours — or nearly 17 hours every business day in a typical month.
The firm’s letterhead lists eight lawyers on staff.
The firm and its partners have donated more than $30,000 to Gusman’s political campaigns, according to campaign finance reports.
Gusman has said that six of the firm’s lawyers work on Sheriff’s Office affairs, two of them full-time.
Under the previous agreement, Gusman for nearly a decade paid a flat rate of $68,000 every two weeks, and the firm was not required to provide an accounting of its members’ work or their time.
If the new hourly rate of $175 had been in effect then, the firm’s lawyers would have had to work 842 hours per month, or more than 38 hours every business day, to reach $68,000.
The firm’s owner, T. Allen Usry, who signed the agreement with Gusman, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The issue of Gusman’s legal bills arose at Thursday’s meeting when Andy Kopplin, the city’s chief administrative officer, told the council he was working with the sheriff to have city departments take over certain administrative functions, like legal services and information technology.
He called the sheriff’s previous agreement with the Usry firm “extraordinary” and said much of the work the firm does could probably be done for free by salaried employees in the City Attorney’s Office.
Gusman then told the council that he has renegotiated the contract to substantially reduce its cost. The new arrangement goes into effect today.
The previous flat-fee payments came under fire during the sheriff’s well-publicized legal battle with the city this year over who should pay for the sweeping reforms at Orleans Parish Prison required by a federal consent decree.
Gusman said he inherited the legal arrangement from his predecessor, Sheriff Charles Foti, who left office nearly a decade ago.
The firm has been working for the Sheriff’s Office since 1975, according to the contract signed last week. Foti, who later served as the state’s attorney general, has said he plans to run against Gusman next year.
Gusman said during a federal court hearing this summer that he had never analyzed the legal arrangement to determine whether the firm’s work was worth the money he paid it.
He said he had not ever asked for billing statements or a breakdown of tasks performed or hours worked.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has pointed to lucrative contracts for political supporters, like the one with Usry, Weeks & Matthews, as evidence of Gusman’s financial mismanagement of his office.
Gusman has countered that the city has been shortchanging him on the amount of money he needs to run the jail.
The new contract specifies that the firm will submit itemized statements twice a month describing the services it rendered, the initials of the attorney who did the work and how much time he spent on it, down to a tenth of an hour. The agreement also allows the sheriff to void one day of the firm’s work every two weeks — a provision included in solidarity with Sheriff’s Office employees, who are mandated to take furlough days twice a month.
The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is the lowest-paying law enforcement agency in the region. Deputies start at less than $30,000 a year.