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Separated at birth? 

click to enlarge ART BY LYN BRANTLEY
  • Art by Lyn Brantley

When was the last time you saw Marlin Gusman and Ray Nagin on the same courthouse steps ... or on the same beach in Jamaica? Uh-huh. See where I'm going with this?

  It never occurred to me until the sheriff's bizarre testimony in federal court last week (and his rant afterward) that he and our former mayor may have been separated at birth. They certainly seem to think alike, if you can call their recent ramblings the product of rational thought.

  No need to rehash Nagin's dementia. It's a given. But I always figured Gusman was compos mentis. Aloof and prickly at times, yes, but no dummy — and certainly not out of touch with reality.

  He sure had me fooled.

  What is it about some politicians that makes them retreat into isolation under fire, not just into a political bunker, but also into some alternate version of reality? Richard Nixon in the final days of Watergate comes to mind, as does Nagin after Hurricane Katrina.

  Gusman's performance last Thursday, after some devastating jailhouse videos were played in federal court two days earlier, put him right up there in that pantheon of paranoia with Tricky Dick and C. Ray.

  The damning videos were shot in Gusman's House of Detention in 2009, either by prisoners or complicit guards. They show inmates gambling, waving fistsful of cash and a loaded handgun, guzzling beer and worse. One segment depicted a prisoner strolling down Bourbon Street, taking in the sights and boasting that he would bolt if his trial went south.

  The main issue in the court proceeding was the fairness of a proposed consent decree that Gusman negotiated with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to improve conditions at his jail. Several DOJ studies during Gusman's tenure (he was elected sheriff in 2004) concluded that abuses inside Orleans Parish Prison were so egregious and so rampant as to render the jail unconstitutional. Gusman welcomes the consent decree but claims he runs a clean jail. That's delusional enough, but it's nothing compared to his testimony about the videos.

  On the witness stand and later to reporters, Gusman claimed his memory of the videos was sketchy — as if any sheriff could see such activities in his own jail and not recall them vividly — and that he watched only a portion of them ... on "a very small screen." That last line reminded me of Norma Desmond's famous line in Sunset Boulevard: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

  Last week, the pictures suddenly got big again. Really big. It was Gusman that got small.

  The inanity didn't end there. Gusman suggested the videos may have been doctored — although he couldn't say how. He claimed at one point that he didn't even know about the videos, even though they were in a safe in his office. Then again, he swore he didn't know about the safe (or its combination), either. Then he admitted he heard about the videos but couldn't recall if he had seen much of them.

  The city subpoenaed the videos three weeks earlier, to no avail. When the FBI showed up with grand jury subpoenas, Gusman's office promptly opened the safe and handed them over.

  Gusman saved his biggest whopper for his post-trial news conference, where he pronounced: "I'm here, I'm elected and I'm doing the job."

  If he and Nagin weren't separated at birth, they're joined at the id now.


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