Criminal Justice

Budget manager, auditor for Sheriff’s Office admit to seven-figure mistakes

Financial experts familiar with the operations of Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman conceded in federal court today they made multi-million-dollar errors in the office’s recent  budget and audit.

The testimony came during the first day of a hearing before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who will determine whether the city or the Sheriff’s Office is primarily responsible for paying for extensive reforms designed to bring the Orleans Parish Prison into compliance with constitutional standards. Africk ruled in an earlier phase of the civil lawsuit that such reforms are necessary, and that they will be implemented by though a federal consent decree.

Our detailed live blog of today proceedings are available, and we’ll be covering it live again Thursday.

Gusman contends that the city, which is responsible for paying the costs of housing city prisoners, is not providing his office with enough money. The city says Gusman has plenty of money but he’s not managing it properly.

Harry Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor now representing the city in this case, found some problems in the sheriff’s financial documents, which his attorneys were slow to turn over.

Gusman’s top financial officer, Elizabeth Boyer, took the stand first, fumbled through documents and admitted to the judge that she was a bit nervous. Rosenberg didn’t make her any more comfortable.

He asked about contract spending recorded as $13.9 million for 2012 – $3 million more than it should have been.

“Is that a mistake?” Rosenberg asked. Boyer confirmed that it was.

“Isn’t that a figure that was reflected to the public?” he asked? Again, Boyer agreed.

At least the court got some answers Wednesday.

At the last hearing on June 24, Gusman was often unable to answer basic questions about his office’s finances such as how much money was in the bank or how to identify legal fees in his office’s ledger. He said that such questions would be better addressed to Boyer.

Rosenberg also grilled the sheriff’s external auditor, Albert “Joey” Richard, who also has served as Gusman’s campaign treasurer.*

Rosenberg’s implicit refrain was that the auditor took the sheriff’s word too often at the expense of accuracy. The attorney pointed out that certain items in the audit did not square up with reality. For instance, the audit stated that the inmate population has grown every year from 2007 until 2012. However, that figure has declined every year.

“Was that information provided to you by the sheriff?” Rosenberg asked. Richard said it was.

Another part of the audit put $8.5 million in an incorrect category.

“That’s an $8.5 million mistake that was reflected in the audit, isn’t it?” prodded Rosenberg.

“Yes, it is,” Richard said.

One section of the audit recorded $3.8 million in claims and judgments paid to individuals who won lawsuits against the sheriff or reached settlements with him.

“Are you aware that the sheriff’s attorneys just represented that for 2012, $200,000 was paid for the purpose of claims and settlements paid to individuals?” Rosenberg asked.

Richard said he didn’t know that. When asked if this figure was inconsistent with the $3.8 million figure the sheriff provided for the audit, he agreed that it was.

Rosenberg also posited that the audit was missing relevant items related to the sheriff’s spending related to criminal wrongdoing on the part of his employees. Richard agreed that if the sheriff made payments for criminal wrongdoing in his office, the auditor would note those payments. Yet, no payments are reflected in the audit.

Sarah Fontenelle, an inspector-evaluator at the city’s Office of the Inspector General, was the last witness to take the stand. The office released a report in June comparing the Orleans Parish Prison to a comparable jail complex in Louisville, Ky. The report indicated that because the two jails were similar in population size, personnel number and per-diem funding, the sheriff was adequately funded by the city.

On cross-examination, Freeman Matthews, an attorney for the sheriff, asked Fontenelle if the report would have been better if it had examined more cities and their jails. She said the report wasn’t ideal because time constraints allowed for only one comparison, but that Louisville was the best possible analog to OPP.

Gusman contends that a new jail building set to open within a year will solve most of the problems identified in several critical reports from the U.S. Justice Department. However, critics say that the facility doesn’t provide space for special populations, such as the mentally ill.

Africk again scolded the sheriff’s attorneys for their delay in producing key information about a pending redesign of the still-under-construction jail to accommodate those concerns. Though the plans for the building should have been submitted by July 11, the sheriff requested an extension until Aug. 1. Today, a clearly annoyed Africk ordered the sheriff to give the plans to the court by 5 p.m. Friday.

The plans will be the part of the next phase of the lawsuit, set for Aug. 5.

The hearing will continue Thursday morning at 8:30 with Boyer appearing for further questioning. Rosenberg also plans to call the citys’ Chief Administrative Officer, Andy Kopplin, to the witness stand.

*Correction: The story previously said incorrectly that Richard was Gusman’s campaign manager.

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