By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

At least a dozen Orleans Parish Sheriff’s deputies are owed thousands of dollars for working a lucrative security detail at the city’s auto impound lots, says one of the deputies who complained that he and others haven’t been paid since starting the moonlighting work in May.

Click here to watch Lens reporter Matt Davis discussing this story on the afternoon show with our reporting partners at WVUE-TV.

It’s unclear how far the money flowed – if at all – before being plugged up somewhere before reaching the deputies.

The city is contracting with Sheriff Marlin Gusman to perform the work, which costs the city as much as $35 an hour. The value of the one-year contract is capped at $450,000.

A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he couldn’t determine whether the city has paid the sheriff for any of the work over the past five months. At least one deputy claims to be owed $18,000.

The Sheriff’s Office official who coordinates the detail work told deputies that the city hasn’t been paying the sheriff, said the deputy who approached The Lens with concerns. The Lens isn’t identifying the shortchanged deputy, who fears retribution from superiors for speaking out.

The deputy was among about 20 called to a mandatory meeting Wednesday night at Sheriff’s Office headquarters to discuss the issue, called hours after The Lens sought comment from the sheriff on the matter.

The Landrieu administration provided the city contract with the sheriff this afternoon, nearly three weeks after The Lens first requested it under the state Public Records Act. State law requires public officials to provide public records immediately if they’re not in use, and within three days if the documents are in active use. The Lens requested the contract Sept. 19.

The contract’s signatures are dated today.

Gusman did not respond to a request for comment. His paid publicist, Malcolm Ehrhardt, said previously that neither Gusman nor The Ehrhardt Group would provide comment to The Lens because they believe the news website publishes inaccurate information and has unfairly targeted Gusman for negative coverage.

Gusman pays Ehrhardt’s company thousands of taxpayer dollars each year for public-relations services, according to Gusman’s 2010 budget documents.

The deputy who spoke to The Lens said Lt. Cathy Taylor, Gusman’s coordinator of the paid detail, told the deputies nothing about when they might be paid for the work.

Instead, Taylor sent a strong message about talking to reporters, the deputy said.

“We were told that the news media have been snooping around, and nobody should say anything, just refer questions back to the Sheriff’s Office,” the deputy said.

That deputy spoke with five other deputies working the same detail, who were owed between $3,500 and $18,000 each.

“It’s a lot of money,” the deputy said. “And we all just want to get paid for the work that we’ve done. We’ve been working this detail since May, now it’s October, and they still haven’t paid us. We just don’t understand what the hold-up is.”

About 40 off-duty deputies work the paid detail, which Gusman’s office took over from the New Orleans Police Department after the U.S. Department of Justice described practices around NOPD paid details as an “aorta of corruption” in April.

Few who have had the misfortune of visiting the impound lot on Claiborne Avenue, under the elevated portion of Interstate 10, would question the need for security. Most people coming through the door have been towed, and many are outraged at the unexpected costs of towing fees and fines they must pay to get their vehicles back.

The city did not put the security contract out to bid, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said.

Instead, he said, Landrieu’s office expanded an existing contract with Gusman, which provides security at City Hall and Criminal District Court. However, the contract provided today appears to be a separate, new contract, not an amendment to an existing agreement.

Though the ink is barely dry on the contract, its effective date is May 7, and is set to run for a year from that date with a maximum value of $450,000. Berni declined to say how much the city is paying for the other security services.

Berni did not provide a direct answer when asked how the city could be sure that the contract represents the best deal for taxpayers. Instead, he stressed that there is no law against the city amending its contract with Gusman. He said the city is happy with security services provided by Gusman.

The moonlighting shifts are worked by both regular deputies, who have full-time jobs with Gusman’s Office, and by reserve deputies, who either work part time or have no official duties with the sheriff. Reserve deputies earn their badges by working 24 hours of community service hours every month, usually at the sheriff’s behest.

Gusman’s regular deputies earn a much lower detail rate than the reserve deputies – $15 compared to $29 for reserve deputies.  Regular deputies apparently are being paid for their work, said the deputy who approached The Lens.

Tensions have increased between Landrieu and Gusman since September 2010, when Landrieu first convened a working group to decide the right size for Gusman’s planned new jail. That group will meet again on Oct. 19 and is likely to recommend giving Gusman another 1,000 beds on top of the 1,438 beds that the City Council has already approved through a zoning requirement.

Gusman is already bringing in millions of dollars less revenue from housing city prisoners, following of a series of criminal justice reforms enacted by Landrieu’s administration and the council over the past 12 months. He is paid by the city on a per-prisoner, per-day basis, which has come under fire from various quarters, including the Inspector General’s Office for providing a perverse incentive to incarcerate more prisoners.