Grace: Revelations may tip OPP over the edge 

Reputations routinely rise and fall, but rarely has a politician’s public standing plummeted quite as dramatically as Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s has lately.

The sheriff, who enters re-ection season with the word “embattled” practically appended to his official title, is dealing with a long list and wide range of troubles. There’s the federal bribery and bid-rigging investigation into his office that has produced several guilty pleas, including from high-ranking former employees. There’s the separate federal civil rights investigation into Orleans Parish Prison, which has documented appalling conditions and led to a consent decree mandating changes to Gusman’s fiefdom. And there’s Gusman’s war of words with Mayor Mitch Landrieu over whether the city underfunds the jail, or whether Gusman’s spending is out of control.

For all the bad press Gusman’s receiving now, the interesting thing is that none of the underlying conditions developed overnight. It’s more that things have gotten so bad, and in such a public way, that it’s no longer possible to ignore.

Gusman has not been implicated in the criminal probe, but news of its existence was one tipping point. That such shenanigans were taking place on his watch — and that several of the perpetrators were members of his inner circle — badly undermined the sheriff’s carefully protected image as a professional manager (ironically, that image was largely built during his time as former Mayor Marc Morial’s chief administrative officer, even though similar crimes occurred during Morial’s tenure).

Tipping Point No. 2 had to be the release of several videos that showed inmates drinking beer, taking drugs, gambling, and brandishing guns and cell phones, all with no apparent fear of discovery or consequence. The videos, which were discovered in a sheriff’s office safe, were first aired in court during a hearing on the consent decree.

Even if the videos had not gone viral, conditions outlined in the legal filings over the consent decree were shocking enough. Witnesses said the jail was plagued by suicides, sexual assaults, beatings and stabbings, and that it failed to provide proper medical and mental-health care. But it wasn’t until the general public got a look behind locked doors — or not-so-locked, given the video showing an inmate checking himself out of OPP and taking a stroll down Bourbon Street — that people without a connection to the jail started to take notice.

“Specific examples of dysfunction at OPP are representative of systemic deficiencies,” U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk wrote in his order approving the consent decree. That about sums up the reaction. Gusman’s protestations that things aren’t so bad, particularly his claim that, even though he signed the consent decree, conditions at the jail are not unconstitutional, just ring hollow. And allegations that a new building under construction lacks space to keep suicidal, mentally ill and underage inmates separate and safe come off as more credible against this backdrop.

Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s contention that the jail receives adequate funding from the city may turn out to be another tipping point. Although Gusman rejects the report’s findings, the neutral opinion bolsters Landrieu’s argument that his administration should not have to provide more money to meet the consent decree’s demands. All it needs, both Landrieu and Quatrevaux argue, is more transparent budgeting and better oversight — something Gusman actually supported in his past lives as city CAO and councilman. The fight over funding is heading back to court this week, when Africk is expected to delve into Gusman’s spending habits.

The findings may also influence how the public views specific reports of questionable spending at OPP, from the $74 million FEMA-funded kitchen that is apparently three times bigger than necessary to the $213,000 Gusman spent to renovate the House of Detention weeks before it shut down. Much of that money went to a newly formed company with ties to John Sens, the office’s former purchasing director and one of the ex-employees who pleaded guilty to unrelated charges.

All these conditions may have developed over time, but the heightened scrutiny marks a genuine sea change.

In the past, the sheriff’s job has been something of a political plum; he had a large workforce and budget at his disposal, and he operated under relatively limited oversight. That’s all over now.

The biggest change, though, is that the constituency for change has expanded significantly. Where once questions were raised mainly by inmates with little public sympathy or political power, along with their families and their lawyers, now the Justice Department, a federal judge and other local political players are applying their considerable muscle as well.

And where once many casual observers might have figured that conditions at OPP were humane enough — and that people who found themselves locked up deserved whatever they got — now are realizing how many lines have been crossed, for how long, and at what cost.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at
sgrace@theadvocate.com.