Criminal Justice

Budgetary shell game: Case of the missing $200G for juvy monitors

The spread sheets reflect a discrepancy in the budgetary bottom line for ankle bracelets (right) leased from Omnilink and monitored by sheriff's deputies.

How much money did the City of New Orleans appropriate for Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s Electronic Monitoring Program this year?

a)     $200,000

b)     $504,000

c)     $600,000

d)     $704,000

e)     $904,000

f)     all of the above

g)     none of the above

(Warning: It’s a trick question.)

If your guiding document is the adopted New Orleans budget for 2012, then the answer is a): The line item for the electronic monitoring in the sheriff’s budget is $200,000.

But if your guiding document is the proposed New Orleans budget for 2012, then the answer is b). According to the line item detailing the expenditure, Gusman was budgeted $504,000 for the program, which utilizes 124 of the ankle-bracelet devices to monitor pretrial defendants and wayward juveniles as an alternative to incarceration.

If public testimony from Gusman is your guide, however, then the answer is c). Gusman told the City Council Criminal Justice Committee earlier this month that he had about $600,000 to spend this year on the electronic monitoring program.

If public comments from Mayor Mitch Landrieu are your guide, then the answer is d). Landrieu said earlier this year, via a news release posted on the city’s website, that the city had budgeted $700,000 for the sheriff’s electronic monitoring program.

But based on public comments from Gusman and Councilwoman Stacy Head the answer should be e) $904,000. Gusman was budgeted $504,000 for the electronic monitoring program, according to the proposed 2012 budget – which was then amended last December to add $200,000 to the sheriff’s budget for the program and an additional $200,000 to the Juvenile Court budget, which the council said was also for ankle bracelets.

Evidence of a budgeting breakdown emerged when Head questioned Gusman at the recent hearing and discovered, to her surprise, that the electronic monitoring program was underfunded by at least $200,000.

Head to Gusman: “City documents say you should have gotten $904,000.”

Gusman’s reply: “We never got the $904,000.”

“It was almost a silly conversation,” Head told radio station WBOK after the meeting. “I was working off the budget documents from the mayor. [Gusman] was basing it on reality.”

What happened? City budget czars moved $504,000 from the line item for electronic monitoring to the sheriff’s “care and custody” budget. The city then replaced the $504,000 it had shifted with the $200,000 the council had added to the budget by amendment.

So while on paper it appears Gusman was budgeted $200,000 for the electronic monitoring program, the $504,000 is still part of his $22,944,000 city appropriation for this year; it’s just folded into another line item.

“It could be shown in an easier way,” conceded Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni, who insisted that the program was funded at $704,000 … until the city implemented a 3.8 percent hold-back for all departments this year, which cut Gusman’s budget for electronic monitoring down to:

g) none of the above, or $667,248.

That’s still $67,248 over the cap for electronic monitoring built into a cooperative endeavor agreement inked by Landrieu and Gusman in 2010. The agreement limited sheriff’s spending for the program at $50,000 a month, or $600,000 a year. Berni said the city was retroactively amending the agreement to raise the cap. “It’s routing through and waiting for approval,” he said.

This budgetary shell game illustrates a nagging problem at City Hall: a disconnect between what the council asks for during the abbreviated budget-amendment period, and what the city actually does in response to budgetary amendments offered by the council.

“We’ve seen this in other departments,” Head observed, adding that a similar problem occurred earlier this year when the council discovered that $3.2 million it had earmarked for fixing streetlights was cut to $1.5 million in the Department of Public Works budget, without any notification to the council.

Under the city charter, the administration has significant, if not absolute, powers over how it deploys money appropriated by the council. Head is not taking issue with the administration’s charter-given authority – in any event, there’s no legal mechanism to force the administration to spend the money according to council directives. But she argues that Landrieu’s team is violating a de facto honor code in ignoring council appropriations targeting specific problems.

“It’s not the particulars, it’s the process,” Head said. “Rather than go through a pretend budget process, we can do other things. I’m not second-guessing the decisions, but the bottom line is when the council passes the budget, we say, ‘the money is going to be spent in certain ways.’ ”

“The Sheriff asked for $504,000,” Head’s office wrote in an email. “The council approved that plus an additional $200,000 to him, and another $200,000 to Juvenile Court. Therefore, there should be $904,000 for electronic monitoring citywide.” Head later added, “I can tell you without any doubt whatsoever that the budget was $904,000.”

But wait a minute … what about that $200,000 appropriation to Juvenile Court? Here it’s a matter of semantics. Berni says the council failed to specify what the money was to be used for.

The council argues otherwise.

“Based on our records during the budget hearing process – the intent for the $200K funding allocated to Juvenile Court was for (the electronic monitoring program),” Council Fiscal Officer Calvin Aguillard said.

Berni pointed to the council’s amendment itself, which reads, “This amendment…increases appropriations in operating expenses as follows…. Juvenile Court by $200,000 and Criminal Sheriff by $200,000 for electronic monitoring.” By not putting the words “for electronic monitoring” alongside the Juvenile Court’s number, the legislative intent is open-ended, according to the city.

Council officials insist that the clear implication of the amendment, which passed unanimously, is that both budgets were to be raised by $200,000, for electronic monitoring.

The council added the $200,000 to the Juvenile Court budget during the budget-amendment period in early December. City Budget Director Cary Grant and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin attended the December 1 budget meeting, which was notable for the absence of any questions or comments about the added money for electronic monitoring – a total of $400,000, counting the sheriff’s additional appropriation.

Fast-forward to the late June Criminal Justice Committee hearing. Saying he couldn’t answer budget-related questions, City Crime Commissioner James Carter deferred to Kopplin, who did not attend the meeting. The absence of any juvenile judges was also noteworthy, given that much of the discussion centered on juvenile monitoring, a popular but controversial program, and on the curious disappearance of $200,000 for it.

The program, which supplies and monitors the devices snapped on juveniles and adults awaiting trial, gained a higher profile recently when police said a monitored 13-year-old boy killed a man. The shooting occurred in Mid-City, some 12 miles from the boy’s home in eastern New Orleans, police said.

In discussing the program before the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, Gusman and Carter were joined by Criminal District Court Judges Camille Buras and Gerard Hansen, and by Lisa Simpson of the Vera Institute of Justice, which runs a pretrial program at Orleans Parish Prison to assess those arrested and facing arraignment.

The panel fielded questions from Head and Councilmember Susan Guidry, the committee’s co-chair, about the budget, about expanding the number of bracelets in use among juveniles, and about imposing geographic restrictions, such as home confinement, on those wearing them.

Eighty-five percent of the clients wearing the devices are released without geographic restrictions. Conditions of release are set in a judge’s order.

The program has been administered by Gusman since 2010, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu – citing public safety – gave Gusman the contract under an arrangement that did not require a public bidding process.

Guidry asked Carter how the contract could have gone to the sheriff without a public bid, but the crime commissioner deferred to Kopplin, who was traveling on business. The no-bid bracelet deal turns out to have been built into Gusman and Landrieu’s 2010 collective endeavor agreement, which has since been extended to 2015.

Under the agreement, the city compensates Gusman $14.75 a day for monitored juveniles and $13.25 for adults in the program. That’s less than the $22.39 it pays him for each prisoner he keeps locked up.

The high-tech tracking units are leased by Gusman for $5.50 a day from a company called Omnilink, which was picked by Gusman because it was “the only one that was 24 hours and, at the time, had cellular triangulation,” said Chief Deputy Gerald Ursin in response to Guidry’s inquiries about the no-bid contract.

Gusman said 49 of the devices are allotted for juvenile use, “but it’s pretty much first come, first served.” He said about 400 juvenile offenders have participated in the program since he took charge of it.

The $800 units signal the wearer’s location every 15 minutes and are linked to a three-deputy tracking unit at the jail. Gusman said purchasing the units instead of leasing them would be prohibitively expensive, owing to maintenance and service costs Omnilink covers.

Gusman cited an 86 percent success rate for the juveniles who have come through the program since he took it over in 2010; the other 14 percent violated terms of their release, such as curfews, and were remanded to a juvenile facility. He said seven teens out of the roughly 400 participants had been caught committing crimes while wearing the device, though Head said she believed the figure could be higher.

The 13-year-old alleged shooter from eastern New Orleans had no geographic restrictions and was complying with his curfew, Gusman noted.

Guidry was surprised to learn that the overwhelming majority of court orders don’t include geographic restrictions. “Most assume we are monitoring that person – where that person may or may not go,” Guidry said.

Still, Guidry expressed support for continuing with the electronic monitoring program. “It’s a wonderful program that seems to be having great success. We just need to fine-tune it,” she said.

It has also has found favor with judges. “We really need more bracelets,” Hansen said.

A spokesman for Gusman directed questions about the electronic monitoring budget to city lawmakers and budget officers.

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.
  • I. M.

    Shortly after the “monitored” juveniles perpetrated their henous crimes, Marlin “Pseudo Sheriff” Gusman executed yet another dumbfounded act. He acknowledged and awarded the monitoring division deputies, as employees of the month… all three of them. Marlin “Pseudo Sheriff” Gusman’s timing, is more than a bit contrariant

  • Alan Pond

    Ms Stacy Head is to be applauded for her persistence in discovery of the application of taxpayer funds in this instance. I know my head (no pun intended) would spin at the budgetary sleight-of-hand applied to line items on a regular basis. Kudos to her for keeping her eye on the ball, and the The Lens for letting us know!

  • Pingback: Sheriff, council, administration want to change OPP financing | : Investigative Journalism New Orleans()