Orleans sheriff spends lavishly on pest control at jail

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has spent nearly $600,000 on pest control at the city’s jail since 2010 — more than 43 times what Jefferson Parish paid to keep its jail pest-free over that same span, and 14 times what St. Tammany Parish spent.

All of the work was performed by DA Exterminating, a Metairie company owned by Jed Darensbourg, one of Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s most generous campaign donors. Darensbourg is also a close friend of John Sens, the former purchasing director for the sheriff who was sentenced Wednesday to five years in prison for orchestrating a bid-rigging and kickback scheme with contractors working at the jail.

Federal prosecutors have not alleged any fraud in the pest-control billings at the jail, though sources with knowledge of the probe say the extermination deal is one of many contracts that have attracted investigators’ interest.

Whether the heavy spending on pest control has been beneficial is difficult to measure. The Justice Department has in the past said Gusman’s jail is infested with cockroaches and mice — and the recently signed consent decree mandates “adequate pest control” — but it’s hard to tell whether the lavish spending has made things better.

Darensbourg, DA’s owner, did not return phone messages or respond to emails from The Advocate.

David Lasseigne, who handles pest control at Jefferson Parish’s jail, was shocked to hear what his counterpart in New Orleans is earning. Lasseigne’s firm, Titan Exterminating, has twice submitted the low bid to handle pest control for all the buildings owned by Jefferson Parish government, including the parish jail.

The parish owns more than 50 buildings. Lasseigne’s current price to keep all of them pest-free: $12,348 per year. Of that, just $2,400 goes toward treating the jail, which he visits monthly. If the parish calls him out for an extra visit because of a problem, it’s on his nickel.

The money Lasseigne earns in a year from treating Jefferson Parish’s entire inventory of buildings would hardly cover a month’s worth of DA Exterminating invoices for the Orleans jail.

Lasseigne could hardly believe it when he was told that DA has billed as much as $200,000 in a single year.

“That’s a dream contract,” he said. “I don’t think it’s physically possible to come up with $200,000 worth of work a year in that place.”

For that much money, Lasseigne said, he could probably handle “two Superdomes and one New Orleans Arena. That would be having several guys out there nonstop, and I still don’t think you’d spend $200,000.

“I’m shocked. I wish I could have bid on that one,” he said.

In an interview, Gusman said comparing New Orleans’ jail to those in other parishes is inherently unfair. For starters, his jail is bigger than the others. The Tammany jail averages about 1,000 inmates, while Jefferson’s typically holds about 1,200. Gusman’s jail population has fluctuated in recent years, but typically holds around 2,500 prisoners.

That’s not the only difference, according to the sheriff.

“Other sheriffs’ offices don’t have old, spread-out facilities like we have,” Gusman said. “It takes a whole lot more work to maintain these old buildings. They have cracks, crevices … things come in and out.”

Gusman also surmised that he puts more of a priority on pest control than some of his peers.

“You can err on the side of not doing enough,” he said. “We had some issues where they were saying we weren’t doing anything” about pests.

His reference was to a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice report that noted a “visible pest problem” at his buildings.

“Although mice and cockroaches are nocturnal by nature, we observed both during our daytime visit, indicating there is a widespread presence,” the department wrote. “Additionally, inmates complained about rodents and roaches in the facilities, and several work orders noted the presence of rodents in cells.”

DOJ’s investigators were unable to get much information about what the sheriff’s office was doing to remedy those problems.

“Despite the obvious extent of these infestations, OPP was unable to produce a list of services or chemicals used for pest control,” the report said. “When asked about how often OPP sprayed or treated for pests, staff gave inconsistent responses, ranging from weekly to every three months.”

Katie Schwartzmann, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s New Orleans office, which has sued on behalf of inmates over jail conditions, said the pest problem “definitely has not improved” since the 2009 report. She said her organization continues to receive complaints regularly about vermin at OPP. That’s why the federal consent decree — which her organization is a party to — requires improvements in that area.

Phil Stelly, a spokesman for Gusman, said records suggest that DA Exterminating first began working for the Sheriff’s Office in 2001, when Charles Foti was sheriff. That initial relationship ended for unknown reasons, Stelly said, and then rekindled in 2004, after Gusman’s election.

Campaign records show that Darensbourg’s firm has long been one of the sheriff’s most generous donors. An analysis of the more than $2.7 million in donations the sheriff has received since 2004 shows that Darensbourg has given $34,500: That’s more than any single person or company except for Guillot’s Sanitary Supplies, which donated $38,000 to the sheriff.

Darensbourg began contributing to the sheriff in 2004, the year Gusman first was elected to the post.

But his donation curve rose steeply starting in 2006, when his friend, Sens, was named purchasing director. He began giving $5,000 or more each year, although he hasn’t donated since giving the sheriff $10,000 on a single day in March 2010, the records show.

Gusman said he knew little if anything about the relationship between Sens and Darensbourg, but others who know the pair say they are close.

For his part, the sheriff said he is not particularly close to Darensbourg. “I know him. I think he’s a nice guy; I’ve been in his company,” he said. “But I don’t really hang out with him socially.”

It doesn’t appear that Gusman has made much effort to see if one of Darensbourg’s competitors might offer a better price.

The Advocate asked the Sheriff’s Office to provide all invoices, bid documents and contracts related to pest control from Jan. 1, 2010 to the present.

The sheriff’s lawyers provided the newspaper with a spreadsheet of more than 1,000 invoices submitted by DA over that time period –- roughly one per day. The amounts billed ranged from $55 to $3,707; the records provide no details about the services rendered in each case.

There were no bid documents provided to the newspaper. Stelly said records show DA provided a “one-time quote” in 2011, but it was not clear whether the office also got quotes from competitors at that time.

Jenifer Schaye, a lawyer for Louisiana legislative auditor Daryl Purpera’s office, said that under Louisiana law, pest control would likely be considered a professional service. That means that Gusman would not need to follow the state’s public bid law, which says public works and materials contracts must go to the low bidder.

But Purpera said the fact that it isn’t required doesn’t mean agencies shouldn’t solicit bids. “Since it’s a service-type contract, it doesn’t have to be bid,” Purpera said. “But we would recommend they do bid it, from a best-practices standpoint. You may not have to bid it, but you ought to, to save the taxpayers money.”

Jefferson Parish has followed that advice.

Schaye added that, while professional-services deals are not subject to the public bid law, that doesn’t mean there are no limits on price.

“It has to be a reasonable use of public money,” she said. “For instance, you’re not required to bid legal work. But can you pay lawyers $1,000 an hour (in public money)? In my mind, that would not be a reasonable use of public resources.”