Uncategorized
 

Gusman pays crony a million a year for services that aren’t specified

Sheriff Gusman

Sheriff Gusman

Pretty much everything gets archived on news websites these days, and that’s important because even the best stories don’t seem to have a very long shelf life on the home page. Rich Webster’s piece on the latest stench wafting from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office went up on NOLA.com late one night and was there to savor in the morning. After lunch, I went to reread it and pffft! it was gone.

A pity because it’s an excellent piece of work, the product of a collaboration with Lee Zurik at WVUE Fox 8 News that deserves a wide audience. The TV version was likewise hard-hitting and eloquent — classic Zurik. It seems to have lasted a little longer on the Fox home page. At least it was still there in mid-afternoon.

New Orleanians should expose themselves to both versions. They are part of an invigorated culture of strong investigative work that seems to have sprung up in this town since Katrina. The Lens does what it can, in that regard — tiny staff, hugely augmented by its expertise in data-based research and reporting. And the venerable Gordon Russell has been hitting home runs over at The Advocate, most recently with his exhaustive look at the costly tax breaks and outright exemptions Louisiana bestows on corporations and the well-connected.

I come not to praise fellow journalists, however, but to deplore the sleaziness that still seems to pervade New Orleans politics — notwithstanding sharp investigative work and the very welcome energies of Ed Quatrevaux. He’s the city’s inspector general whose office then-Mayor Ray Nagin tried assiduously to defund when the clamor for post-Katrina reform first took root. (Gee, Ray, how come you didn’t want an independent investigator at City Hall?)

The gist of Zurik and Webster’s recent report is that the sheriff’s office is signatory to a million-dollar-a-year technology contract for which the contractor, Major Services, provides little if anything in the way of invoicing, just the name of an employee and the hours worked. No description of the work performed, as would be the standard industry practice. In other words, we taxpayers — presumably including Sheriff Marlin Gusman — really don’t know what Major Services does on an hour-to-hour basis to earn that $1 million.

Our confidence in this arrangement is not enhanced by knowing that the contractor is Bobby Major Jr., a convicted felon who is also an old pal of Gusman’s. (His IT firm, claiming 31 employees but operating without a website, is domiciled in a house on Toulouse Street that once was and may still be Major’s home.) And it is of more than passing interest that the contract was overseen by another of Gusman’s friends and jailhouse employees, John Sens, now doing five years for contract rigging and kickbacks.

Gusman’s careless way with your tax dollars is only more astonishing for following fast on the heels of another such arrangement that Zurik exposed a couple of years ago. That one was with a law firm Gusman was paying a flat fee of $1.7 million a year without a contract or any requirement that the firm detail services rendered. Gusman defended the arrangement as a huge money-saver, a claim that fell apart in the harsh light of public scrutiny. A new contract requiring Usry Weeks & Matthews to bill by the hour and itemize its legal work capped the monthly fee at $65,000, cutting the firm’s annual take in half.

Calling the information  "security-sensitive," a spokesman for the contractor has refused to release documentation explaining what Major Services actually does for Orleans Parish Prison.

Tom Gogola

Calling the information "security-sensitive," a spokesman for the contractor has refused to release documentation explaining what Major Services actually does for Orleans Parish Prison.

Zurik and Webster quizzed Major Services for more detail about billing practices, only to be told two things that, to my eye at least, seem self-contradicting. One is that detailed records are kept by the contractor and are made available any time the sheriff’s department questions anything. The other contention was that requiring the tech staff to actually jot down what work it performs and bill accordingly would slow response times and inflate costs.

Well, which is it? Does Major really have good records or are they too cumbersome and costly to create.

Zurik and Webster tell me that they asked Gusman for records supporting Major Services billings only to be stonewalled. Three weeks passed and Gusman had produced nothing, a clear violation of public-records law, which requires production of requested records within three days. At one point a PR firm hired by the contractor (your tax dollars at work) showed Webster some email chatter about work for the sheriff’s department, a photocopy of tasks performed on a particular day and some sort of end-of-year checklist. When Webster asked for copies, he was denied because of what the flack called the “security-sensitive” nature of the information.

Is there criminal intent behind all this, an effort to deliberately defraud taxpayers and shovel buckets of money to one of Gusman’s political allies? Maybe. Maybe not. Is this a classic example of the culture of cronyism which has so often shaded over into criminality in New Orleans? Absolutely. Just ask Nagin and his aide de camp (and IT expert) Greg Meffert. Both of them are now in prison.

Webster says he and Zurik are going to stay with the story, and I certainly hope they do because they’re off to a flying start. The next step, if the Times-Pic and Fox 8 still have the wherewithal in these difficult times to fight for their rights in court, is to insist that Gusman fulfill the public records request in compliance with the law. Major Services says the billings are supported by the records they keep to back up the data-deficient invoices they send out. That may make them “security sensitive.” It also makes them public property.

Jed Horne is news editor of The Lens.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • Incorporeal Matter

    Excellent piece.

  • nickelndime

    It (Jed’s piece) probably is an excellent piece. I just haven’t had time to read it yet. But, let me say this about that. Family works cheap, but then we have those nepotism problems. Cronies are expensive. They run costs up because it is “public money.” Ask the Landrieus. They is (expletive deleted) experts. Oh look, I is going to have to get back with you on this, Cuz, cuz I is about to close on a deal dat don’ts involve family or cronies. 02/21/2015 10:50 PM

  • Good reporting. Seems we can either shrug and blame Andrew Jackson for the continuing patronage & spoils system, or take down his god-awful statute fronting St. Louis Cathedral and pledge to begin governing differently. The contract here may be 5 years old but is similar to the one I’m looking into that was signed a few months ago by the Mayor and a right-wing Republican fund-raiser and Texas legislator — for $8 millions over 5 years; a non-competitive, no-bid, “professional services” contract with (what I allege is) an international car theft & chop-shop ring: https://plus.google.com/115088209919068438390/posts/T1UEyqajQ7M

  • nickelndime

    I hope you nail ’em, Thomas Balzac. Looks like the going rate for cronies is about 1 million (whether one looks at annual contracts or those that get spread out over five years). The sad truth is that “government” either has too much to do and does nothing (so many cronies and so little time) or does nothing because there is so little it (government) CAN DO. Sometimes you gotta tear down a few statues (if you’ve got connections, you can get a permit and the statue will be gone before people realize that something was there) – bust some holes in the public’s belief system that they are powerless and that it (graft and corruption) is okay to steal public money as long as you don’t get caught with your hand in the $600,000 (Langston Hughes charter) to $ 1 million dollar cookie jar (OPP). Sometimes the comments accentuate the stories. i always enjoy yours. 02/23/2015 12:19 PM

  • Seems that every brick lifted at OPP exposes the scorpians and other misuses and abuses of public funds. Please follow up- and follow the money to expose those who profit from poverty.
    best from Freret st.
    Ab