Criminal Justice

Sheriff expects higher legal settlements; city would like better budget details

The fact that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is expecting to pay out $4 million in legal judgments and fees next year — twice as much as in 2012 — was one of the more interesting details to come from the second and final day of a federal court hearing examining the sheriff’s budget.

More generally, the head of the city’s budgeting process said that the annual requests from Sheriff Marlin Gusman lack any of the specifics he gets from other agencies or departments, making it difficult to know how Gusman intends to spend the money he asks for.

U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk held the two-day hearing to determine how much the city and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office are each responsible for reforming the Orleans Parish Prison. The city is charged with paying for care of city inmates, while Sheriff Marlin Gusman is responsible for running the complex.

In the lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of inmates, Africk has already ruled that conditions in the prison complex must be improved. This will be done through a federal consent decree, and the work is projected to cost tens of millions over at least two years.

Gusman says Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city aren’t giving him enough money. The city says Gusman has more than enough, but that he doesn’t manage it well.

Gusman’s top financial manager, Elizabeth Boyer, said the projected legal expenses are based on what the office’s attorneys project they’ll pay out in judgements and settlements, plus the fees for the attorneys. Gusman has come under criticism for paying the law firm of Usry, Weeks and Matthews about $65,000 every two weeks, or about $1.5 million a year, with little if any detailed bills that explain what the firm does for the money.

Asked by Africk whether the expenses are up from $2 million in 2012 to $4 million projected in 2014 because of rising attorney’s fees, Boyer said that wasn’t the case, just that the expected settlements and payouts are increasing.

Former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg, who is the city’s attorney on this case, pointed out Wednesday that only $250,000 of that $2 million went to people suing the office in 2012. Boyer said she wasn’t aware of that.

She said the sheriff has already paid $150,000 in legal settlements this year, and he is expecting two more settlements next month.

Boyer said Gusman will be asking the city for $40.8 million in the upcoming budget process, a significant increase over the $22 million he got in 2012. She said the money will go primarily toward 150 new deputies, pay increases and medical expenses.

Over the two days, Rosenberg tried to bring up examples of what he said was Gusman’s poor stewardship of taxpayer money in the past, but Africk cut him off each time, saying that the court needs to look forward to paying for the jail, not backward.

The city also called its chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, to the witness stand.

Kopplin said that when Landrieu took office, the city faced a $100 million operating deficit because the previous administration had exhausted all savings. He said the city is now spending $40 million less than it was spending in 2009, which it has achieved with a hiring freeze, employee benefit cuts, and furloughs.

“The good news is that we’re no longer spending on a path that will lead the city to insolvency,” Kopplin said. “The bad news is that it’s extraordinarily tight, and we’re able to spend a lot less than we were a few years ago.”

Kopplin said that the court should expect the same rigor of the sheriff’s budgeting methods that the city practices.

Kopplin also complained about the budget requests the sheriff submits to the city. As overseer of the city’s budget, Kopplin evaluates requests for city money. He said there’s a certain level of detail in the budget requests that he expects and needs in order to make thoughtful evaluations.

“That level of detail is not present in the sheriff’s budget requests,” he said.

Rosenberg also broached the issue of the sheriff’s early repayment of a $16 million loan this year, which Kopplin said likely would have been forgiven by the state in five years and was unnecessarily repaid. Kopplin speculated that even if the money could have only gone to bricks-and-mortar projects as the sheriff contends, it could have been used creatively to allay some of the budget stress the city has been experiencing lately.

Kopplin also discussed the possibility of the sheriff holding state inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison longer than necessary, a subject that Rosenberg asked the sheriff about when Gusman was on the witness stand yesterday. Kopplin said that the state inmate population in the complex should be reduced as drastically and quickly as possible because the payments made by the state for those prisoners don’t cover the cost of keeping them.

“The effective contribution of the city is far higher than the sticker price of the per diem,” Kopplin said. “When you’re bringing in outside folks to the city jail, the deputies that are watching over them, the fuel and utilities that are being used, that costs the city.”

On the issue of the city’s payments to the sheriff for municipal inmates and pre-trial detainees, Kopplin took the opportunity to speak out against the controversial per diem model, which is rarely used by other jurisdictions. He said that such a per-day, per-prisoner arrangement is not a good practice because it provides the wrong set of incentives — to keep people in jail as long as possible.

“The city would like to see a functional budget, a fixed budget, based on sufficient details that explain how it will meet the needs of the jail,” he said.

Rounding out the day’s questions, attorney Freeman Matthews representing Gusman asked Kopplin about the city’s position regarding the sheriff’s annual Thanksgiving Day dinner for the elderly.

All Kopplin would say on the subject was that the sheriff’s main priority should be running a constitutional jail.

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