By Tom Gogola, The Lens staff writer |

First, The Lens reported that a judge hired the sheriff’s wife for a no-bid courthouse job: Renee Gusman made about $30,000 over 10 months counseling first-time marijuana offenders for Municipal Court Chief Judge Paul Sens.

But what about the judge’s wife?

Turns out Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman hired Sens’ wife as a real-estate appraiser about the same time, even though she had little background in that field. Records show that Ann Sens earned $91,200 since early January 2011.

Ann Sens

“Mrs. Ann Sens performs appraisals for Sheriff’s sales handled by this office,” reads an intra-office memo from Chief Peter Rizzo to Gusman dated Feb. 27, two weeks after The Lens first inquired about her employment. Rizzo manages real-estate sales for the sheriff.

Appraisers working for the sheriff normally make $150 per appraisal.

Ann Sens wrote to Gusman in October 2010 seeking a job with the sheriff. She wrote that she wanted “any position that you might have available.”

Gusman jotted a note on Sens’ cover letter and routed it to Rizzo, asking him for advice.

Sens’ resume detailed “20 years of experience in the Health Care Industry and Human Resources related areas,” but no experience as an appraiser.

She listed work as a marketing account executive for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, and several other health-care corporations and, at the time of the job application, said she was “self-employed, as a Louisiana Licensed Real Estate Agent, operating under an independent Licensed Broker, as well as maintaining and managing personal investment properties.”

Sens’ real estate broker’s license was issued on Dec. 3, 2005, state records show.

Sens is not a licensed appraiser, according to state records, but an exemption in state law means she doesn’t have to be for this work. The Sheriff’s Office provided documentation that says she completed a 15-hour online course on appraisers’ standards and codes of conduct. Sens completed that $239 course a few months after applying for work in the department.

Sens is a 1980 graduate of Loyola University, with a degree in psychology. Her resume does not indicate any other educational background or coursework.

She was hired to do appraisals “on or about January 5, 2011,” according to documents the sheriff’s attorney provided to The Lens.

Sens is one of seven people appointed to perform appraisals for the sheriff. Two of the seven are licensed by the state of Louisiana, records show.

Rizzo hired Sens “based on her qualifications,” reads a letter written in response to a Lens public-records request by Craig Frosch at the firm of Usry Weeks & Matthews, which represents the Sheriff’s Office.

Sens is listed twice on the list of sheriff’s appraisers Frosch provided: As herself, Ann Garvey Sens, and as an agent of “NOLA Appraisals, Inc.”

The Secretary of State online database shows NOLA Apraisals  LLC – with “appraisals” misspelled – was registered on June 23, 2011. Ann Sens is listed as the registered agent and manager. The company address is the same as the Sens home, as indicated on Sens’ resume and on personal financial disclosure statements filed by Paul Sens.

She earned $72,900 in 2011, with $32,1000 going to her personally and $40,800 to NOLA Appraisals LLC, according to the letter from Frosch. NOLA Appraisals earned $18,300 through March 9.

Neither NOLA Appraisals nor NOLA Apraisals – with the same apparent misspelling as is on the state’s corporations database – is listed on the Louisiana Real Estate Commission’s database of licensed appraisal management companies.

Ann Sens did not return a phone call seeking comment. An email inquiry went unanswered.

News of Ann Sens’ hiring comes on the heels of a report by The Lens that her husband gave the sheriff’s wife a no-bid contract as the only counselor available to some drug-court defendants. She began her work in late February 2011.

Renee Gusman, whom Paul Sens calls “a friend of mine,” works with first-time marijuana offenders through the Municipal Court’s Supervised Disposition Program.

She made nearly $30,000 during the last 10 months of 2011 in counseling sessions billed to the offender at $40 a visit.

In defending his non-competitive hire of Renee Gusman, Judge Sens argued that because she wasn’t being paid with public monies, he was not required to seek bids.

Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said last week that his office is “scheduling a discussion” with the judge as part of an investigation into whether the Renee Gusman hire was proper. Quatrevaux had no comment on the hiring of Ann Sens by the sheriff’s department.

Up to dozens of properties are disposed of during weekly sheriff’s sales held at the Civil District Courthouse, 421 Poydras St. The properties are foreclosed houses or blighted properties that have been taken over by the city for unpaid code violations or other reasons.

“The number of appraisals has increased substantially under Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s blighted property initiative,” Frosch pointed out in his letter.

Landrieu has said he wants to dispose of 10,000 blighted properties in three years.

Many properties require an appraisal because neither party in a foreclosure provided one, or because plaintiffs and defendants can’t agree on the value of the property. Disputes are refereed by the sheriff’s appraiser.

“Not all foreclosure sales require appraisals,” writes Frosch, “but all City blighted properties that are to be sold at Sheriff’s sale require at least two appraisals, and sometimes three.”

State law caps the fee for an appraisal at $350, a figure in line with national pay rates, but Gusman caps the fee at $150.

Sheriff’s Office money is not used to pay for these appraisals. Under state law, they are paid by the plaintiff in a foreclosure proceeding, typically a bank.

The Lens submitted a public records request in mid-February seeking “any document that explains the process for selection of … said appraisal services or providers.”

The Sheriff’s Office responded by sending Sens’ resume and cover letter.

No records were provided indicating that the job was put out for a competitive hiring process. The department’s online listing of public bids does not include any requests for bids seeking appraisal services.

A review of a sheriff’s sale scheduled for April 19 of this year sheds light on some of what the sheriff’s appraiser job entails.

In one recently contested appraisal, the plaintiff submitted an appraisal for $79,000; the figure submitted by the defendant was $85,000. The appraiser split the difference, determining the house to be worth $82,000.

Another contested appraisal from late last year repeats the pattern: The bank said an Esplanade Avenue property was worth $200,000. The defendant said it was worth $220,000. The appraiser’s number: $210,000.

The Louisiana law that exempts sheriff’s appraisers from licensing requirements was expanded in 2009 to include other public entities and persons contracted by public agencies to do mass appraisals. The move was a response to the flood of foreclosure sales in the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn.

The arrangement apparently isn’t limited to Louisiana. An Ohio sheriff recently came under criticism for his sister’s work as an appraiser in the Dayton area.

About 100 licensed real estate appraisers are in New Orleans, according to the Louisiana Real Estate Appraisers Board’s database.

“They should have a certified appraiser in there doing these appraisals for them,” says licensed appraiser Glenn Bianchini, of Nola Real Estate Appraisal Services. He’s been doing appraisals for almost two decades.

The president of the profession’s national trade group agreed.

“The obvious advantage is that a state-licensed, certified appraiser is regulated,” said Little Rock-based appraiser Sarah Stephens, president of the Appraisal Institute.

She said such certification means the appraiser has done the necessary coursework and on-the-job training, which includes years of apprenticing under a licensed appraiser, and is obligated to use a set of agreed-on professional standards.

And for licensed professionals who “are members of a professional appraisal organization,” she added, “there are also standards and ethics that need to be followed that go above and beyond the Uniform Standards.”

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...