Orleans Sheriff Gusman Cedes Power To Appointee In Jail Compromise, Mayor Landrieu Makes Statement
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A compromise announced Tuesday in federal court in New Orleans keeps the local sheriff in charge of the city's long-troubled jail but only after he cedes broad authority to an outside official who will oversee the jail's management.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman agreed to appoint a new compliance director — from nominees made by inmate advocates, the city of New Orleans and the Justice Department — who will have extensive power over the jail's management and budget. The judge who has been overseeing the yearslong litigation concerning the troubled jail would maintain authority to reject the choice.
And, while the sheriff would make the hire, the order signed by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk says, "The Compliance Director will be answerable only to the court."
At a news conference immediately following the announcement, Gusman appeared to describe the compromise as a win, emphasizing that he will be the one hiring the compliance director and saying the agreement would address his longstanding complaints about pay increases and budget issues.
Still, a statement read by Africk in court makes clear that Gusman is losing authority.
"The measures agreed to by the parties are not measures that the court relishes imposing, as this course of action essentially involves the democratically elected sheriff of Orleans Parish relinquishing operational control and final authority for jail operations to the federal judicial branch," Africk said.
The compromise ends weeks of testimony about whether Gusman should be stripped of his authority to operate the jail.
In April, lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department and the inmate advocates asked Africk to place the jail in "federal receivership" and appoint a third party to run the lockup. They cited Gusman's slow progress in implementing reforms required in a 2012 lawsuit settlement. Gusman blamed the problems on a lack of funding from the city.
Gusman has likened the attempt to strip him of his authority to run the jail to an illegal coup and a move to thwart the will of voters.
"This is an agreement that resolves some longstanding issues," Gusman said Tuesday morning when asked if the compromise was simply "receivership" by another name.
Hearings on the motion to have the jail placed in receivership began late last month with testimony from a court-appointed monitor and others who described jail violence and conditions that contributed to a March suicide.
Gusman was expected to testify at some point, but hearings were repeatedly postponed since early June. Two people with knowledge of the case confirmed that the parties have been in negotiations. Each spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.
Inmates were moved from the old, decaying jail into a new building last September, something the sheriff touted as a factor in improving conditions. But monitors say violence endangering inmates and staffers continues at the new facility.
Gusman on Tuesday stressed areas where he will have control. And he expressed optimism that the new director, who will have the authority to submit a new jail operation budget to the city, will help resolve funding issues, including the need for pay raises for deputies.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration and Gusman have long been at odds over money. While Gusman runs the jail, the city funds it. Landrieu has been critical of the sheriff's jail management, and city officials had made clear in court filings they would prefer to work with a receiver in determining the jails' budget needs.
Katie Schwartzmann, attorney for the inmates, stressed in a news release that the new director will have the final authority to hire, fire and reassign staff, with authority "to make whatever decisions are necessary to move the jail toward compliance with the Consent Decree."
"This change in leadership and the addition of correctional management experience is critical to speeding reform at the jail. We are hopeful that the Sheriff will likewise support the changes necessary to create significant and lasting reform at the Orleans Parish jail," said the news release from Schwartzmann, co-director of the New Orleans office of the MacArthur Justice Center.
The compromise in federal court came the same day that the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans announced that a former jail administrator was charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
The charge against former Orleans Parish Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin was contained in a bill of information released Tuesday morning. It arises from his connection to a private security business that sometimes hired off-duty deputies for security details. Ursin resigned in April. Court documents did not contain information on his attorney.
Another former Sheriff's Office official, Roy Austin, pleaded guilty in May in the case, which involved Austin's security company charging for security personnel who did not actually work security details. Prosecutors said Austin sometimes drafted checks payable to members of Ursin's family for detail work that never happened. Ursin is charged with having those family members endorse the checks.
– by AP Reporter Kevin McGill
Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued the following statement on today’s announced federal order for an Independent Jail Compliance Director to take over operations of the Orleans Parish jail:
“Above all else, public safety is our top priority, and that is true whether it’s the police department, our focus on reentry or prevention, or the city’s jail. Since taking office, we’ve been pushing for sweeping criminal justice reforms. And that includes pushing back against a long history of over-incarceration, mismanagement and dysfunction at the Orleans Parish jail.
“In 2010, the Sheriff had submitted plans for a massive, completely unjustifiable 5,800 bed jail complex, 700% larger than the national average. As a city we said ‘no’. Today, we are not only right sizing the jail, but we have invested more to ensure there is better care. Taxpayers have made a historic investment of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to build a brand new, state-of-the-art jail and its administrative facilities. At the same time, the City has more doubled the Sheriff’s annual operating budget.
“Unfortunately, that hasn’t made the jail work better. Let me be clear: Having a safe, secure, right-sized, well-managed, fiscally-responsible and Constitutional jail is important for our City’s public safety.
“Earlier this morning, Judge Lance Africk ordered that the jail will now be run by an Independent Jail Compliance Director. The Sheriff relinquishes operational control over the jail and the Compliance Director will have full and independent authority to hire, fire, contract and operate the jail.
“The Jail Compliance Director will not only be responsible for bringing the jail into compliance with the consent decree, but will also run the budget so we have better oversight over your tax dollars. As we have requested for years now, the jail will also adopt policies for more open, transparent and competitive contracting and comprehensive financial reporting like we have done at City Hall. We’ll also work with the director to overhaul off-duty details as was done for NOPD. And the Jail Compliance Director will also look for cost savings in the existing operations so that our money can be spent on rebuilding the NOPD and your citizen priorities.
“No doubt, there’s a lot of work left to do, including finalizing the plans for housing our youth offenders and our inmates with medical and mental health needs. But this is a major step forward for our city. It’s transformative. With this settlement and our ability to move forward with right-sizing and making our jail safer and more secure, our criminal justice system will be undergoing a complete overhaul.”