The chief judge of the Municipal Court chose the sheriff's wife for work based on their previous friendship, he said. Photo by Matt Davis
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In an arrangement made possible through personal friendship, Municipal Court’s chief judge gave Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s wife a no-bid, exclusive deal to counsel low-level drug offenders, earning her more than $28,000 over the past 10 months for the part-time work.

Renee Gusman

Renee Gusman owns a counseling company called Bright Side LLC, and she has counseled every person who went through a year-old diversion program. Her online professional profile, verified by the magazine Psychology Today, says she has been a counselor for more than 20 years, and lists 23 counseling specialties and issues. Drug counseling is not among them.

Renee Gusman did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. Marlin Gusman’s spokesman responded to questions with a one-line statement from the sheriff that simply pointed out that the Sheriff’s Office operates independently from Municipal Court.

The Municipal Court Supervised Disposition Program is designed to keep offenders from going to jail and facing conviction. Those in the program are ordered to visit with Renee Gusman once a month for three months, paying her $40 each visit. Those visits take place in the Municipal Court’s law library, public space that the court makes available to Renee Gusman for free.

Chief Judge Paul Sens created the arrangement. He said a bid wasn’t necessary because no public money is being spent – those in the program make the payments directly to Renee Gusman. Sens said the court doesn’t track the money she makes or the frequent free services she offers to those who can’t afford the fee.

“I chose the only person that I really knew that was in that line of business and who has a master’s degree in counseling from Loyola.” Sens said in a phone interview. “I mean, she’s a friend of mine, so, you know, I brought her in for that reason, to help me develop the program.”

Sens didn’t go into detail about how he knows Renee Gusman. But Sens’ brother, John Sens, is a top official in the Sheriff’s Office, serving as Marlin Gusman’s purchasing agent. In an unrelated matter, Gusman is investigating John Sens for possibly billing the Sheriff’s Office for time that he also claimed to be working a private detail.

After The Lens raised questions about the number of clients and money collected, Renee Gusman reported to Sens that she served 459 clients and collected $28,549 from Feb. 28, 2011 to the end of 2011. She meets with clients during select times during the week, Sens said, though he did not provide details.

The judge said on Tuesday that the effort was a pilot program that is now complete. He said he is satisfied with the results and is eager to continue the diversion effort. He is now inviting other counselors to approach him for the work.

The arrangement doesn’t appear to violate state ethics laws, but critics say it looks bad — and the city’s inspector general is interested in learning more about the circumstances of the deal.

“It has the appearance of impropriety,” said former Criminal District Court Chief Judge Calvin Johnson, who also is chairman of the board of directors at The Lens. “It doesn’t mean she is not qualified, but this should have been opened up for competitive bids because of her relationship with the sheriff.”

Loyola Law Professor Dane Ciolino said it’s right that people are raising questions about the arrangement.

“People probably should ask why could this contract not be put out for public bid,” Ciolino said. “Why is it just being parceled out by Municipal Court in what may seem to some as kind of a brother-in-law arrangement?”

Ciolino also said that the nature of the verbal agreement between Renee Gusman and the court warrants further scrutiny.

“Many might look at it as, ‘The government’s not paying the bill here, the criminals are, so we shouldn’t be concerned about the cost,’ ” Ciolino said. “But we should be, because even those accused individuals who are diverted into the program have to pay the bill, and at the end of the day, it’s more money out of citizens’ pockets.”

Though no written contract is in place, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said he wants to better understand the agreement between Municipal Court and Renee Gusman.

“This would appear to be, if it were a contract or a procurement, a violation of the city’s procurement policy which requires three quotes for any sole-source contract,” Quatrevaux said. “And any sole-source contract over $15,000 has to have a written justification for not competing it. I don’t know enough about the circumstances in this case, but I would like to understand it better.”

The diversion program was made possible through a criminal-justice policy change developed in part by Marlin Gusman’s office and approved by the City Council in late 2010. However, it doesn’t appear that Marlin Gusman had a hand in creating the diversion program that benefits his wife. The pilot program was designed after council approval.

State ethics law prohibits “participation by a public servant in a transaction involving the governmental entity” in which “any member of his immediate family” has a “substantial economic interest.”

The council created a city ordinance for marijuana possession, giving police officers the option of charging someone in state court or Municipal Court.

If someone is found with a small amount of marijuana, police can simply write a summons for Municipal Court instead of booking the person into jail on state charges. The move saves police the hours it takes to process inmates into jail, and it saves the city the $22 per day the city pays to house prisoner.

Indeed, Sens said Municipal Court has reduced city incarceration costs from $7 million to $3 million over the past four years as a result of innovative changes such as this diversion program.

From the offenders’ point of view, it avoids an unpleasant stay in the Orleans Parish Prison complex and gives them a chance to avoid conviction if they complete the diversion program.

Gusman’s office was part of the policy-making group that proposed the change on pot defendants, and it offered no resistance to that change when it came before the City Council for a vote in December 2010.

The ordinance was proposed by the Municipal Court Working Group, under the umbrella of the Criminal Justice Leadership Alliance, a project created by former Councilman James Carter in fall 2007. It was facilitated by the New Orleans office of the Vera Institute of Justice, which worked with various law enforcement agencies to develop consensus on a number of issues.

The head of Vera in New Orleans said Gusman’s participation in the group is above board.

“The sheriff’s participation in the Municipal Court Working Group is a positive thing, just as it is for all of the government actors who come to the table to advance system improvement,” Vera leader Jon Wool said. “I see no link between the ordinance allowing for prosecution of marijuana as a municipal offense, and what services were contracted for those charged with that offense.”

While Marlin Gusman’s office stood to lose some daily revenue from the change, it ultimately funneled money to his wife’s company.

Here’s how the program works: A person given a summons for pot possession can now take three monthly drug tests at the Criminal District Court drug testing lab, for $10 a test. They are also referred to Renee Gusman. The defendant must pay $40 per appointment to her company, for a total of $120, unless they cannot afford to pay. There is also a $200 payment to Municipal Court.

In a subsequent interview with our partners at Fox8 News, Sens said Renee Gusman has 25 years of counseling experience and that she is uniquely qualified to deliver drug-counseling services to young people arrested for a first marijuana offense. She is also African American, Sens said, like the majority of those going through the program.

In Jefferson Parish, defendants going through a marijuana diversion program are sent to a variety of drug counselors who are on staff at the District Attorney’s Office.

Sens said that while he had not offered any other counselors the chance to work with him on the pilot phase of the program, other counselors are welcome to approach him now.

“Let them come,” Sens said.

But that’s not the best way of soliciting bids, said Vicenzo Sainato, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Loyola University.

“If it’s an equitable deal, they’re going to go out and ask other companies to approach them,” Sainato said. “The question is: If the pilot program is done, what now?”