By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman appears ready to release millions of dollars he has been withholding for city building projects from a powerful agency he controls.

Gusman held a meeting of the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District this afternoon, which effectively works as Gusman’s piggy bank for construction projects such as his planned new jail, as well as renovations to city-owned criminal-justice buildings. The governing body of the district has one member: Gusman. That’s why he has been able to sign over checks to finance his construction projects, and, at the same time, withhold money the city wants for its projects.

From left to right: Vincent Smith, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Director of Capital Projects; Attorney Tracie Washington from the Louisiana Justice Institute; Gusman’s bond attorney, C. Grant Schlueter; and Gusman discuss the release of money for city building projects. Photo by Matt Davis

Gusman is sitting on about $32 million for city projects such as courthouse repairs, an addition to the District Attorney’s Office and a new Coroner’s Office, all approved by voters since 2000.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu aide Katie Dignan laid out timelines to completion for the various projects, in response to concerns raised by Gusman’s attorney, C. Grant Schlueter with bond attorneys Foley & Judell. Schlueter said the district can only issue money to the city if it can be spent in the next three years, under federal tax law.

Improvements to the Criminal District Court could be complete by 2014, Dignan said, while improvements to Municipal and Traffic Court could be done by 2013. The new Coroner’s Office will be complete by 2013, and a new police evidence and processing complex could be completed by summer 2014, Dignan said.

Attorney Tracie Washington attended the meeting at Gusman’s invitation as part of the group’s “oversight committee,” Gusman said. She said she was concerned that with so many projects on the go, the city might experience “bottlenecks.”

Landrieu’s Capital Projects Director Vincent Smith said he doesn’t anticipate that.

“We have a substantial construction portfolio,” Smith said. “And all of that it is in place, all the management personnel and processes are in place to do that. We’re excited that all of this work is finally going to hit the streets and that this work is finally going to come online.”

Gusman stopped short of suggesting a vote to release the money to the city this morning because such a vote needs to be noticed in advance of the meeting. Gusman also said he was “glad to see the process that we’re moving forward with,” and congratulated Smith on coming up with a plan for the expenditure of the money.