After a six-hour round of testimony in federal court over the Orleans Parish Parish consent decree, Sheriff Marlin Gusman held a brief press conference outside OPP's intake center in the shadow (and noise) of new facility construction. As he did last week following Mayor Mitch Landrieu's emergency City Council meeting on the OPP consent decree, Gusman slammed the mayor and defended the internal reforms at the sheriff's office — and addressed the content of a damning video of inmates at the now-closed House of Detention, which closed last year.
"That video from 2009 revealed in graphic detail the devastating effect of rumbling, outdated jail buildings that are lacking modern security measure," Gusman said. "The four-year-old images you saw reflect the old way of warehousing inmates. ... The actions taken in that video are unacceptable and despicable."
Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and U.S. Attorney Dana Boente mutually filed a request today to delay a criminal trial against Nagin until October. Nagin, who pleaded not guilty to 21 felony counts in February, was originally set to begin trial at the end of April. However, as today's motion says, it's a large and complex case.
From the joint motion:
"The nature of the present prosecution is complex and involves an extensive amount of electronic and documentary discovery. The current posture of the case makes it unreasonable, taking into account the exercise of due diligence, to expect adequate preparation for pretrial proceedings and trial prior to April 29, 2013."
Read the motion to continue trial: Nagin_Delay.pdf
This week saw several bombshells in the local political arena: a Baton Rouge judge nullified the results of last November’s bridge toll referendum, and the feds dropped their years-long investigation into the River Birch landfill and its co-owners, Fred Heebe Jr. and Jim Ward. In a sense, both stories were about tolls.
Let’s take the easy part first.
No matter how you voted last November, there’s no denying the logic of Judge William Morvant’s decision to void the toll referendum’s outcome. The facts are undisputed — indeed, the state didn’t even put on a case in support of the results — and the law is clear.
At least 1,000 voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes were given “provisional” ballots that allowed them to vote only in the presidential election. Dozens of local items were on the ballot that day, including the tolls, but provisional voters could not vote in those contests. Many provisional voters were legally registered, but for some reason their names were not on the Election Day rolls. Registrars need to fix that.
Morvant correctly cited state law, which says if it’s impossible to determine the result of an election because qualified voters were denied the right to vote, a judge may nullify that election. Morvant ordered a new referendum on May 4, which happens to be the second weekend of Jazz Fest.
Suffice it to say the turnout on May 4 will be radically different than that of last Nov. 6, and that means toll supporters have an uphill fight. In politics, the easiest thing to do is kill a tax — and many see the bridge toll as a tax. Last November, toll supporters could count on the presidential election to push turnout, but on May 4 they’ll have to drag folks to the polls. They’ll raise fears of bad maintenance, less grass cutting, lights going out on the bridge and the like, but toll opponents have more motivation to turn out: they’re pissed off and they smell blood.
Which brings us to our next topic: the end of the federal River Birch investigation. The immediate reaction in many quarters was that the lengthy probe was a waste of time because it came to naught. That’s not entirely true. While the feds didn’t nab Heebe, the landfill owner bagged a passel of errant federal prosecutors by exposing Sal Perricone and Jan Mann for unprofessional, unethical and possibly illegal actions in connection with their acerbic — and petulant — online commentaries.
The plaintiffs in the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) consent decree case today dismissed the argument that a consent decree for the jail would force city government to write a "blank check" to the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, the city's main objection to a proposed consent decree for the jail. In contrast, the plaintiffs say in a new court filing, the decree will ensure that the city actually knows what it's spending its money on.
"As opposed to a 'blank check,' the Proposed Consent Judgment is giving the City, perhaps for the first time, a clear idea of how and where funds for OPP will be spent, says the reply, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of OPP inmates.
The plaintiffs argue that the city has thus far chosen to keep blindly funding the prison without demanding better accountability — through the annual budget process or through its party status in Hamilton v. Morial, a lawsuit that resulted in the current per diem rate — even after it had been made aware of the alleged abusive conditions there.
"The City has been formally on notice of deficient conditions at OPP since at least the United States’ 2009 Findings Letter. Since that time, the City has shelled out tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to a constitutionally deficient facility, where people continued to be seriously injured and die. The City took no steps to protest, intervene, seek relief or remedy the conditions."
(More after the jump)
The city of New Orleans yesterday filed a pleading in federal court opposing the final approval of the Orleans Parish Prison federal consent decree. While the city is committed to protecting the constitutional rights of inmates in OPP, it says, it objects to being tied to a consent decree while funding remains a question. The court has scheduled a hearing to determine the fairness and necessity of the consent decree for April 1. A hearing on paying for it — how much and who is responsible — is not scheduled until late May.
"...it is respectfully submitted that review of the proposed Consent Decree cannot be cleanly segregated from the funding hearing," reads the filing.
In July, the sheriff's office informed the city that estimated additional costs to bring the jail into compliance could run as much as $45 million in city dollars for the 2013 fiscal year, an increase of about $23 million from its current per prisoner per day general fund allocation. The filing says such and increase would force it to "lay off more than 600 employees or begin furloughing employees for periods in excess of thirty days."
(More after the jump)
Mayor Mitch Landrieu predicted last month that he and Sheriff Marlin Gusman would have a falling out over the cost of the proposed federal consent decree for Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). It’s time for that fight to happen, and not just because of money.
City Hall and the sheriff’s office have long had a testy relationship, owing largely to the fact that the city must pay a huge chunk of the sheriff’s budget without any say in how the jail is run.
Now the stakes are much higher than money. The feds last year joined a lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) against Gusman, alleging that he runs a jail so devoid of human decency, safety and security that it is unconstitutional. The pleadings paint a picture of a prison that rivals those of Third World countries. Some examples:
• Since January 2006, at least 39 people have died while in Gusman’s custody. An alarming number were suicides and drug-related.
• Yearly since 2008, independent experts and/or the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) have concluded that OPP is unsafe, unsanitary, medically unsound, poorly managed — and that’s just the beginning. Gusman denies the reports, saying they are based on “patient reports and inmate accounts.” Duh. Who else would know how bad conditions are? Last year, DOJ joined the SPLC suit to fast track the process of having conditions at the jail declared unconstitutional.
• In 2012, a review panel on prison rape singled out OPP for its “apparent culture of violence” and recommended that OPP “review the quality of the services it provides to victims of sexual assault.”
• Also last year, DOJ wrote in a letter to Gusman, “Despite our findings and repeated attempts to encourage you to meaningfully address numerous problems, the already troubling conditions [at OPP] are deteriorating.” The same letter cites “alarming conditions … [that] persist or have worsened.”
Activist group Community United for Change (CUC) yesterday submitted a brief opposing the city of New Orleans' recent attempt to cancel the New Orleans Police Department federal consent decree. The group even goes a step further than the consent decree, asking the court to consider placing the NOPD under federal control.
"CUC urges this Court to consider placing NOPD in receivership or under the authority of the U.S. Department of Justice. The most recent actions of the City of New Orleans illustrate why they are not capable of self-governance in a constitutional manner," the brief says. "In the meantime, the Court should deny the Motion to Vacate."
CUC cites recent precedent in Oakland, Calif., where the police department has been under a consent decree since 2003. Late last year, plaintiffs claimed the department had failed to come into compliance after nearly 10 years, even though the decree was originally intended to last just five years. They petitioned a judge to place the department under federal control, rather than U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) oversight under a mutual court agreement as in a consent decree. The department avoided receivership in name, but a December deal puts it under the authority of a federal compliance director, who has the power to fire the police chief.
The city claims the NOPD decree, coupled with another consent decree over Orleans Parish Prison, would be prohibitively expensive. The group, like the DOJ, dismisses the argument on the grounds that the city has a responsibility to ensure both constitutional policing and constitutional jail practices.
"It is shocking that the City of New Orleans takes the position that people are only entitled to a constitutional police force or a constitutional jail," the CUC memorandum says. "This latest attempt to avoid responsibility is proof positive that the NOPD and the City of New Orleans are incapable of policing themselves."
CUC previously attempted to intervene as a named plaintiff in the consent decree lawsuit. Judge Susie Morgan denied the motion in August. CUC is appealing the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Read CUC's brief: CUC.pdf
Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan granted the former mayor a $100,000 bond. Under the terms of the bond, Nagin will have to surrender his passport and limit his travel to Louisiana and Texas, except with permission of the court. He is not allowed to speak to any potential witnesses in the case.
Nagin refused to speak to media after the hearing. Walking away from U.S. District Court with attorney Robert Jenkins, Nagin stared ahead silently as reporters pelted him with questions.
Shushan scheduled a pretrial conference date for April 16. The trial is set to begin on April 29, as of today. Given the complexity of the case, however, that is likely to be pushed back, should it end up going to trial.
Early this evening, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office sent out a statement regarding the U.S. Department of Justice filing a motion in opposition to the City of New Orleans' recent motion to void the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) consent decree:
The DOJ’s filing today mischaracterizes our interactions over the last several years, especially as it relates to the OPP consent decree. We negotiated the NOPD decree in good faith, expecting the same from the DOJ. After extensive negotiations including cost considerations on the NOPD decree, the DOJ has demanded that the taxpayers of New Orleans fork over an ambiguous, unjustified sum of money for the prison decree. It is clear that both the prison and NOPD consent decrees cannot be paid for at this time without raising taxes or laying off or furloughing employees. And it does not make sense to lay off or furlough police officers so the Sheriff can hire more prison guards and pay them higher salaries.
The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the city's largest police officers' association, today submitted to federal court a memorandum in support of the City of New Orleans' motion to void the New Orleans Police Department's (NOPD) federal consent decree. In it FOP argues that the city has already addressed many of the department's most serious problems without federal intervention. Moreover, the memorandum says, the city would be better off using the tens of millions it would have to commit to the consent decree to improve the department by increasing manpower and replacing equipment.
"The FOP also believes that the City is better off without the Consent Decree," it says.
The memorandum goes on to say that the U.S. Department of Justice is mistaken in its belief that constitutional policing is not taking place now.
"Since the commencement of the tenure of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Superintendent of Police Ronal Serpas the NOPD has become a vastly different department than the one that was studied by the DOJ," it reads. Supt. Serpas has already instituted many of the reforms called for in the Consent Decree. "No one is saying that all of the Consent Decree components have been adopted but many have and it is obvious that the this mayor and police chief are committed to reform."
(More after the jump)
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