Live blog: Sheriff’s Office budget poked, prodded in federal court

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If the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has complied with a federal judge’s demands to produce key budget documents in a timely manner — issued sternly after the office failed to do so last month — the public will learn a great deal more in court this week about how the jail operation is financed.

I will continue to live blog the hearing starting at 8:30 a.m. here. Wednesday’s live blog appears below.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk reprimanded Sheriff Marlin Gusman for giving plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit the key information just hours before a long-scheduled June 24 hearing.

“This type of late production is unacceptable,” Africk said.

Though he held a hearing that day that covered some broad-brush information, he postponed the rest of the hearing a month.

The Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Sheriff’s Office in April 2012, and the U.S. Justice Department joined the center in demanding reforms at the long-criticized Orleans Parish Prison. Gusman then pulled the City of New Orleans in as a co-defendant, saying it has the legal responsibility to finance a major portion of the prison complex’s operation.

The lawsuit is being taken in phases by Africk. He’s already ruled that the deplorable conditions of the prison require major reform, in the form of a federal consent decree, calling the complex “an indelible stain on the community.” He’s now holding hearings to determine how much of the financial responsibility for an overhaul lies with the sheriff and how much with the city.

The Sheriff blames the city for lack of funding, and the city blames the Sheriff for misuse of funds.

At the June 24 hearing, the sheriff fielded questions from the city’s attorney in this case, Harry Rosenberg, who likened Gusman to the Wizard of Oz operating secretly behind a curtain. When asked specific questions about his budget, such as how much money was in the office bank account, the sheriff often could not answer, saying that the city should ask his employees instead. He named accountant Elizabeth Boyer as one such employee.

Rosenberg complained, “Ms. Boyer told us she couldn’t give us this information. We’re in between a rock and a hard place.”

The sheriff’s attorneys assured Africk that Boyer would be ready to testify at the next hearing.

The sheriff also has delayed producing details of the new jail facility that he is building. The plaintiffs say the new $145 million complex will not resolve unconstitutional conditions because it lacks medical facilities and separate housing for mentally ill prisoners.

Live blog, Day 2

Live blog, Day 1

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