A tier at the new $145 million Orleans Parish jail, which opened in September 2015. Federal monitors say little has changed there under Sheriff Marlin Gusman's watch, which he disputes.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office (OPSO) is a failure wrapped in a tragedy inside a disaster. The latest bad news: a legislative auditor's report claimed that Sheriff Marlin Gusman improperly disbursed more than $1 million in supplemental pay to ineligible employees. On top of that, his chief deputy resigned after being connected to federal fraud charges regarding an off-duty detail scheme. Gusman delivered a "state of the sheriff's office" address last week, but his message was the same as always: Things are fine, despite appearances to the contrary — oh, and he could use more money.
Gusman has gotten more money in the past — yet little has changed, despite a new $145 million jail, a $60 million annual operating budget and plenty of time to work on systems that were broken when he was first elected in 2004. Gusman consistently claims to make progress, but he and his PR people seem to be the only ones who believe that.
Gusman's flawed management of the office and jail put him under a federal consent decree in 2013. Last month, there were new calls for him to step down after a fifth federal monitor's report found "no progress" — despite the shiny new jail. "The day-to-day crisis environment observed by the Monitors in the agency's operations does not evidence a professional, competent or informed leadership," the report concluded. "The OPSO leadership vocalizes their commitment to achieving compliance, but their actions, observed for more than two years, don't support the rhetoric."
Translation: Gusman is inept. He talks the talk of reform, but he doesn't walk the walk.
The "rhetoric" cited by the monitor is familiar: Deny obvious facts and blame others. It reminds us of another failed local politician — former Mayor Ray Nagin. As the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership (NOAH) scandal unfolded in 2008, Nagin angrily denied anything was wrong and accused the media of "hurting the city" by discussing it. Last week, Gusman insisted "the sheriff's office has made so much progress. And sometimes it just doesn't make the news."
What did make the news recently was federal charges against a high-ranking former sheriff's employee-turned-private contractor, Roy Austin, who coordinated off-duty details for sheriff's deputies and cops. The feds say Austin billed businesses for shifts that no one worked. Austin pleaded not guilty but is expected to cooperate with the investigation. Meanwhile, Gusman's chief deputy, Jerry Ursin, quit amid speculation the feds are investigating him as well.
All this comes after waves of horrible publicity for the sheriff's handling of the prison, from videotapes of inmates brandishing guns and drugs to reports that some left the jail at will. At the new jail, reports of violence are up, rather than down. Gusman says it's because reporting has improved. That's supposed to make us feel better?
In 2014, Gusman won a third term against weak opponents. New Orleans voters only can hope a qualified candidate for sheriff steps forward before the next election.