Sheriff Gusman ordered to produce jail design plans

A federal judge on Wednesday gave Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman two days to submit his plans for housing sick, mentally ill and juvenile inmates in the new jail that is expected to open in January.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk ordered a 5 p.m. deadline Friday for Gusman’s office to respond to questions raised by inmate advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice, who claim that the new, $145 million building can’t handle all inmate populations.

In legal filings, Gusman has insisted that the new, 1,438-bed jail is well-equipped for every type of inmate, and that it will also meet the demands of a federal consent decree governing jail reforms. At the same time, the sheriff’s lawyers recently asked for more time so Gusman’s design team could figure it out.

Africk pressed the issue at a hearing over how much money Gusman’s office collects and how he spends it. During about 90 minutes on the stand, Gusman bristled over questions from an attorney for the city about his office’s spending and reporting of financial figures.

Later, asked about the designs for special populations of inmates, Gusman said only, “It’ll be good.”

The issue came up during a hearing in which the city tried to bore into the sheriff’s financial numbers, aiming to show Africk that the sheriff is playing a shell game with revenues from both the criminal and civil sides of his operation, and that his claim of a serious deficit can’t be trusted. The city, obligated under state law to fund inmate care, is jockeying to shave additional costs expected under the reform plan, which could run $20 million.

Former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg, an attorney for the city, seemed to land a few blows while questioning an accountant for the Sheriff’s Office and an independent auditor who does work for Gusman.

The auditor, Albert “Joey” Richard, of the Postlethwaite and Netterville firm, acknowledged a discrepancy of well over $3 million in reported payments on legal claims and judgments made by the sheriff in 2012. The sheriff’s accounting manager, Elizabeth Boyer, had earlier placed the figure for legal settlements at less than $200,000. The recently completed audit shows $3.8 million.

“Obviously there is some explanation,” Africk remarked. “I haven’t heard the explanation. It’s too large of a discrepancy.”

Rosenberg also poked at how much the sheriff pays for legal work — with one document showing about $4 million budgeted for this year — along with the cost of outside technology help, extermination and other contracting costs that add up to some $10 million per year.

Gusman’s office has come under recent scrutiny for its use of outside contractors. Two of his former top deputies have pleaded guilty in a bid-rigging and contractor kickback scheme.

The hearing, which resumes Thursday with the city’s chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, slated to take the stand, is prelude to another court hearing scheduled for Aug. 5 on the cost of adding jail staff and fixing the prison.

After that, Africk said he will quickly rule on the initial cost to fund the jail reforms and who needs to foot the bill.

The city has argued that bad management and misspending, not paltry city funding, is to blame for any unconstitutional conditions at the jail. Gusman, meanwhile, claims the city has failed to live up to its responsibility under a state law that requires it to pay for inmate care.

A story in The Advocate this month highlighted the pest control bill at the Sheriff’s Office since 2010 — more than 43 times what Jefferson Parish spent and 14 times what St. Tammany Parish spent.

“Are you aware over $550,000 was spent just for extermination work over the last couple of years?” Rosenberg quizzed Gusman.

“It seems high.”

“Yes, it does. I’m just asking if you’re aware of it.”

“It seems high.”

Africk put a stop to the inquiry, making it clear he’s not interested in past spending gaffes, but in how to find money now to fix the jail.

“Are we going to analyze each time when the exterminator was out there?” the judge said.

A similar response came when Rosenberg asked Gusman to explain the purchase of numerous vehicles over the past few years, along with why he decided in January to pay off the full balance of a $16.8 million disaster loan with funds from a law enforcement district he controls.

The implication: That Gusman was looking to keep from looking flush in cash. Gusman, in a testy exchange, argued that he wanted to get out from under the loan’s interest rate, and that the money couldn’t have been used for jail operations anyway.

Rosenberg suggested that Gusman could have tried to make better use of the district money while waiting for possible amnesty from the state. Again, Africk said he wasn’t interested in picking through the past.

“This is not going to help me. The money’s gone,” the judge said. “What’s needed to continue?”