Sheriff spent $213,000 on repairs, then closed facility

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman speaks at a news conference in April in front of the now-shuttered House of Detention.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman speaks at a news conference in April in front of the now-shuttered House of Detention.

Just weeks before he shut down the controversial House of Detention in April 2012, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman sank hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars into renovations to the jail facility, with much of the money going to a newly minted company with links to John Sens, the former purchasing director for the Sheriff’s Office who has since pleaded guilty to unrelated bribery and bid-rigging charges.

The 11th-hour repair work, totaling at least $213,000 and possibly more, went to Gulf State LLC, which had been incorporated just days before by a friend of Sens’ and a Mississippi contractor who was close to Gusman’s chief deputy at the time.

The questionable spending, on a building Gusman would later say he had always planned to close, raises new questions about Gusman’s management of the jail complex, which has been under heavy fire from federal officials as well as Mayor Mitch Landrieu. A pending consent decree between Gusman and the federal government mandates a series of reforms at the jail, with a potential cost for taxpayers in the tens of millions of dollars.

City officials have said the city can’t afford the decree, and they have urged the feds to take over the jail’s operation, saying the problem is not a lack of money, but poor management by Gusman. A federal court hearing meant to shine light on the jail’s finances is due to begin June 24.

The work at the House of Detention was done amid increasing federal scrutiny of the conditions in Gusman’s various facilities.

As part of a federal inquiry into whether conditions at the jail were unconstitutional — which is separate from the criminal probe that netted Sens — federal authorities had scheduled a visit to the jail for April 2012.

The Sheriff’s Office apparently made a last-ditch effort to spruce up the “House of D,” which Gusman has acknowledged was in appalling condition, and which was the backdrop for a notorious, recently unearthed video shot in 2009 that showed inmates brandishing a gun, swilling beer and taking a variety of drugs while behind bars.

Inmates had long complained of violence in the building, and reports of contraband were frequent.

Records provided by Gusman show that while the repairs weren’t started until right before the federal visit, the Sheriff’s Office had issued a request for proposals in late 2010 to repair and waterproof the showers at the House of Detention.

Representatives of six firms turned up at a mandatory pre-bid conference Oct. 12 of that year, but only one of them, Lapara & Associates, submitted a price of $12,200 for the job — listed in the RFP as waterproofing a single shower — though Lapara’s quote is dated five months earlier.

Though Gulf State didn’t attend the pre-bid conference, the records also contain a quote of $10,837 “per unit” from the firm.

It is dated Oct. 26, 2010, the day before bids were due. State records show Gulf State was not incorporated at the time.

That didn’t happen until March 1, 2012, about a month before the feds’ visit.

That month saw a mad scramble to get the place shipshape.

Between March 12 and March 26, Gulf State sent the Sheriff’s Office 10 invoices — numbered 101 through 110 — totaling $213,246, for waterproofing the showers on five floors of the HOD and handling some related demolition work.

Gulf State is not licensed with the state Licensing Board for Contractors.

Companies that do commercial jobs valued at $50,000 or more are required to be licensed.

Gulf State’s principals are listed as Kendall Marquar, who has done other work in the jail and who was close to the late chief sheriff’s deputy Billy Short, who died in October 2011, and Craig Napoli, a New Orleans restaurateur and businessman who was close to Sens.

Short had been one focus of the federal probe into the Sheriff’s Office before his death.

Napoli did not return a phone message left this week with his wife.

Marquar, through a consultant with Charles Kelly Group, which has done research for a lawsuit he filed against another jail contract, said Gulf State’s work was done professionally and did not involve any overbilling.

Marquar facilitated the permit for a pool that was built at Sens’ home at Waveland, Miss., which figured into Sens’ guilty plea. Richard Molenaar, another jail contractor who has pleaded guilty in the scheme, has admitted paying for the pool, which cost roughly $25,000.

In pleading guilty, Sens admitted to rigging a number of bids for work at the jail, in some cases ginning up phony quotes to make it appear that a job was competitively priced, and then awarding the work to a crony who overbilled for the work and kicked back a portion to Sens.

In this case, Ronald Lopiparo of Lopara & Associates — the other bidder on the job — confirmed that he submitted a quote for the shower work.

The Sheriff’s Office had no comment on the billings or the rationale for the House of Detention work.

Most of the invoices have hand-written notes on them saying they were approved by either Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin or Major Carlos Louque. The Sheriff’s Office also provided an email from Sens to Gusman, dated March 29, 2012, with the subject line “Gulf State Billing.”

The email was copied to Ursin.

It explains that five of the 10 invoices were for the waterproofing of the showers done “under the original bid” — presumably the October 2010 RFP.

The other five were for extra demolition, the replacement of floor tiles and repairs to the front of the showers, work that apparently was not covered under the original bid.

Both Gulf State and Lopara submitted quotes for that work in March 2012.

Three days before Gulf State turned in its last invoice, the U.S. Marshals Service announced it was removing all of its inmates from Gusman’s facilities, citing unacceptable conditions.

The agency cited no single incident for its decision.

But the previous summer, a federal inmate named William Goetzee, a U.S. Coast Guard employee, had committed suicide on the House of Detention’s psychiatric floor.

Though the federal announcement was embarrassing for the sheriff, it wasn’t necessarily the death knell for the House of Detention.

The facility held roughly 650 inmates at that time, the vast majority of them state prisoners.

Less than two weeks after the Marshals Service pulled its inmates, federal authorities made another visit to Gusman’s jail.

They wrote that they found “alarming conditions,” adding that they “were distressed that the problems we described in our initial findings letter persist or have worsened.”

And they flagged the House of Detention as having “some of the most atrocious physical plant deficiencies.”

On April 10, Gusman announced he was closing the House of Detention.

He said he had always planned to close the facility, which he described as hopelessly outmoded, but he said it became possible to do so when his new temporary detention center opened in March.

Gusman also blamed the city, which owns the House of Detention, for the building’s shoddy condition. He said the city had been unwilling to pay for needed repairs.

It’s not clear whether the shower repairs represent the complete extent of the last-minute repairs to the House of Detention.

Records provided by the Sheriff’s Office show there was a second request for proposals for firms interested in winning a deal to repair and maintain locking systems at HOD and seven other jail facilities run by the sheriff’s office.

That solicitation also was advertised in October 2010, and at least one firm submitted a quote.

But the Sheriff’s Office provided no records showing whether that work was ever done.

Inmate advocates had complained that cell doors in the HOD could be “popped” open by occupants, endangering other inmates. One of the notorious 2009 videos, meanwhile, appeared to show an inmate being held at the HOD out cavorting on Bourbon Street, apparently able to come and go at will.

In closing the facility, Gusman said through a spokesman that the outer doors and exterior cell doors at the HOD were secure, but that interior cell doors required “frequent maintenance.”

That was one of the reasons for closing the building, he said.