Hearing may shed light on sheriff’s murky books

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s attorneys go to federal court this week with long-standing questions on their minds: How does the Orleans Parish sheriff actually spend those millions of dollars he gets from the city’s budget every year to run the local jail? And how else does he make a buck?

Every year, the mayor and City Council have to cough up a sum that is more or less fixed by a decades-old court order. Unlike other departments funded out of city coffers, the Sheriff’s Office historically hasn’t had to justify what it gets by turning in information on expenditures or other sources of revenue. By court order, inmates equaled money.

In front of a judge, though, the current sheriff may have to explain not only how he spends the revenue earmarked for inmates, but also what other money he receives — something city officials say the sheriff has never done.

Now that Sheriff Marlin Gusman has signed a new court agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice — a reform deal known as a consent decree that could force City Hall to put up even more money to improve conditions at the jail — Landrieu is forcing the issue, gearing up to interrogate Gusman and his lieutenants about how much money they get and how they spend it.

Landrieu hopes to prove that Gusman has simply botched or hidden his finances and doesn’t need extra money that instead could go toward the mayor’s other priorities, like bolstering a long-troubled police department. It may be the first time that City Hall gets to really pry open the sheriff’s budget and see what’s inside.

“Certainly, we’ll get more information than we had before,” said City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who’s been frustrated three years running by the scant information she gets on the sheriff’s finances, although she noted that other departments also have been less than forthcoming.

“The sheriff and the other criminal justice entities give us some information,” said Guidry, who chairs the council’s criminal justice committee, “but it is very difficult to decipher.”

Of course, Gusman argues that he’s done a competent job of managing the jail and its finances. Although by signing the consent decree, he essentially admits that jail conditions are unconstitutional, Gusman has continued to say that accusations about inmate violence, inadequate medical care and lousy supervision are overblown. Gusman maintains he’s been transparent about his finances, while saying any deficiencies in his operations are the result of penny-pinching by Landrieu.

Whether that’s true or not, the funding arrangement between the city and the sheriff has been a source of irritation for decades, including the years when Gusman stood on the other side of the battle, as chief administrative officer to former Mayor Marc Morial and then as a member of the City Council. Even before talks on a consent decree between Gusman and the Justice Department got going in earnest, Guidry said she was working with Andy Kopplin, the mayor’s top deputy, on a plan for doing away with the daily payments for each local inmate and returning to more traditional agency budgeting.

Now set at $22.39 for each day an inmate stays at the jail, the per-diem system has attracted criticism that it provides the sheriff with an incentive to lock up as many people as possible, for as long as possible.

Ironically, it was inmate advocates a generation ago who pushed for the per diem in the first place, worried that meager funding from City Hall was creating abysmal conditions inside the jail. A lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union resulted in a consent decree in 1990 that established the per diem and laid the seeds of the battle that’s now flaring up between the mayor and the sheriff.

It’s only the latest skirmish in a long war that has seen a rotating cast of characters.

Back in the 1990s, it was Gusman, as Marc Morial’s chief administrative officer, arguing that the city couldn’t afford to shell out what the per diem called for.

Sheriff Charles Foti was demanding the money from City Hall, Morial’s administration was saying it was too much, and, as always, the City Council was demanding more information from the sheriff about his budget. At one point, in 1998, Foti took the city to court, accusing the mayor of falling $7 million behind in required payments.

At the time, the Morial administration argued that the city could save money by simply adjusting the per-diem formula, switching to an hourly system so prisoners held for less than a full day wouldn’t trigger the full daily rate.

Now the stakes are higher. Inmate advocates, led by the Southern Poverty Law Center, argue that the per diem has not resolved grave deficiencies at the jail, including violence, suicides and a dearth of services for the mentally ill.

The new consent decree, endorsed by U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk on Thursday, details specific steps the sheriff will have to take in order to improve conditions.

Still unresolved is what those steps will cost and how they’ll be financed.

Landrieu has already hit the panic button. Claiming Gusman wants tens of millions of dollars to implement the reforms — a figure Gusman claims is exaggerated — the mayor last month painted a set of dire budget-cutting scenarios for the City Council.

But there is opportunity here, too. The new court order could give City Hall the chance to finally do away with the per diem once and for all, along with the annual budget headache that it causes. All sides — including Gusman — agree that the payment method has been a bad way to fund prison operations.

“We absolutely have to move away from the per-diem system,” said Katie Schwartzmann, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s director. “Every expert we talk to says it creates dysfunction, all the wrong incentives and doesn’t make any sense.”

Most likely in the long term, during and after the duration of the consent decree, jail expenses are likely to be paid in a simple lump sum each year. As long as the court-mandated reforms remain in place, the size of that sum will be set by a judge.

Whether the city will be on the hook for the full tab or whether the judge will allocate other Sheriff’s Office revenues to help cover it, is the subject of the court hearing this week.

Landrieu will be in court this week making the case that Gusman has plenty of money that he can shift to cover the jail reforms and that mismanagement — not a lack of money — is the main culprit in the jail’s dysfunction.

The city is not likely to get a final price tag from the judge this week. That discussion will come at a separate hearing in August, after which Africk will decide who pays what.

But the city, arguing that Gusman has misspent money on operations unrelated to the jail, will get to pose questions directly to the sheriff and his top aides. In a court filing last week, the Mayor’s Office listed Gusman as a potential witness, along with Juliet Langham, his controller; Fannie Harris, director of finance; and Anne McKinley, grant coordinator.

In the meantime, the Mayor’s Office and the law center have spent this week sifting through thousands of pages of documents turned over by Gusman’s office detailing the Sheriff’s Office’s finances, everything from requests to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursements to salaries to contracts with builders working on the new jail complex under construction. Doubtless, the Mayor’s Office has been dredging for potentially embarrassing details.

For decades now, the sheriff’s spending has been more or less a closed book. Now, the city will get to see if it’s a good read.