Criminal Justice

Legislative Auditor questions $1 million in pay bonuses handed out by Gusman

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman appears to have misused more than $1 million in state funds by giving law-enforcement bonuses to employees who weren’t eligible, according to a report released Monday by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.

The report also found serious irregularities in off-duty work — allegations that echo a federal charge against a former deputy — and problems with a $230,000 renovation contract involving John Sens, Gusman’s former purchasing director. He was convicted for his role in a bribery scheme in 2013.

The state-funded Deputy Sheriff’s Supplemental Pay program provides up to $500 per month for commissioned deputies throughout Louisiana who are primarily involved in law enforcement.

Gusman is responsible for ensuring his employees’ eligibility, swearing to it on forms submitted to the state. The Legislative Auditor’s report says Gusman may have violated state law by requesting and receiving the pay on behalf of employees who didn’t primarily do law-enforcement work.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office employees “who do not appear to have been eligible to receive supplemental pay include clerks, mailroom employees, facility management personnel, kitchen personnel, and other administrative personnel,” the Legislative Auditor report says.

State law says deputies who primarily work “clerical or nonenforcement” jobs are ineligible for the pay.

Between January 2011 and September 2014, Gusman sought supplemental pay for 56 deputies whose duties appear to have little to do with law enforcement, totaling $1,026,083 in misspent state funds, according to the report. And even those employees who did some work guarding inmates did not qualify because they did not spend a majority of their time in law enforcement.

The Legislative Auditor’s report does not name the employees and does not say if they continued receiving the pay after 2014. The Lens has reported that apparently ineligible employees received the supplement through the beginning of 2016.

The report backs up Lens reporting over the past two years that detailed Gusman’s practice of giving supplements to people whose jobs appeared to have little to do with law enforcement.

The Lens first reported on the issue in early 2014 based on a tip from former deputy Bryan Collins, who had quit after after leaking a photo of a blood-spattered cell after an inmate stabbing. The Legislative Auditor began its investigation of Gusman’s use of supplemental pay after receiving a complaint from Collins.

Collins said the report “illustrated to what extent the Deputy Supplemental Pay Program has been abused and the Treasury Department has essentially been defrauded.”

Collins identified 51 employees he believed were receiving the $500 monthly supplement illegally. Three, it turned out, had been grandfathered into the program because they were deputies who had been hired before 1986. The other 48 didn’t appear to hold positions that qualified for the supplement.

In response to The Lens’ initial report, Gusman spokesman Phil Stelly defended the practice. He said those employees did perform law-enforcement work even though their job titles suggested otherwise.

In some cases, that turned out to be true, employees told investigators from the Legislative Auditor’s office. They said they worked one eight-hour shift per week in a jail facility rather than their normal posts behind desks or in other support roles.

“When asked why they worked this rotation, multiple employees stated that they were required to work in a jail facility once a week in order to be eligible to receive supplemental pay,” the report says. “For example, Juliet Langham, the former OPSO controller who oversaw the financial operations of [the Sheriff’s Office] and certified a majority of the supplemental pay requests submitted to the Treasury, received supplemental pay and was listed on a schedule to rotate through a jail facility once a week.”

Still, most of the 56 employees or their supervisors told the legislative auditor that they did not consider their jobs to be primarily law enforcement.

“According to the majority of these employees or their supervisors, their job duties did not primarily consist of enforcement duties,” the report says.

In a statement released Monday afternoon, Gusman disputed the report’s findings. He said that his office has “fully complied with the law” and added that a state board, the Deputy Sheriff’s Supplemental Pay Board, makes the final determination as to whether a deputy is qualified.

“The Legislative Auditor does not make the determination on State Supplemental Pay issues,” Gusman said. “Our legal counsel has considered this law and reached a determination in the case of each deputy who receives State Supplemental Pay that the deputy is eligible for State Supplemental Pay in accordance with the law. No appeal of any of these determinations has been filed with the supplemental pay board. We are prepared to respond to any such appeals when and if they are lodged with the supplemental pay board.”

Gusman’s office is supposed to provide provide detailed job descriptions for the employees he claimed were eligible, and it’s supposed to break down the percentage of time they spent on each duty. That’s included on monthly reports sent to the state Department of Treasury.

State officials contacted by the Legislative Auditor said an employee should spend at least 50 percent of his time in law enforcement to qualify. But Gusman didn’t break down their duties, a fact that was also noted by the Legislative Auditor.

“Leslie Stieb, the OPSO employee responsible for completing and submitting supplemental pay applications to the Treasury, stated that when she fills out supplemental pay applications for newly-eligible OPSO employees, she usually lists the same job duties (“care, custody, and control of inmates”) for all employees,” the report says.  “As a result, the Treasury could not determine an OPSO deputy’s position or the amount of time the deputy spent on enforcement duties.”

As The Lens reported, that continued well past the scope of the auditor’s report, into 2016, two years after the Department of Treasury sent a notice to sheriffs around the state telling them they had to provide full job descriptions. The auditor’s report also noted that the Sheriff’s Office did not submit required forms to the Treasury indicating when employees’ job duties have changed.

Robert Tarcza, an attorney responding on Gusman’s behalf, took issue with the auditor’s interpretation of the law.

“The law actually says that a deputy is eligible unless he was hired ‘primarily’ to perform ‘purely clerical or nonenforcement duties.’ The word ‘primarily’ also is not defined in the statute,” Tarcza wrote. “The word ‘primarily’ does not imply a 51% to 49% split one way or the other; rather, it implies that the principal purpose of the hire was to obtain a purely clerical person.”

Tarcza provided four employees as examples, including Eartha Grant, identified by Collins as a cook. In 2014, the Sheriff’s Office privatized the kitchen, contracting with food services company Aramark Correctional Services. As noted by Tarcza, the kitchen is now staffed by inmates.

“Deputy Grant oversees a staff of inmates who work in the kitchen, she provides security for the kitchen area and she interacts with the inmate staff to prepare these inmates for gainful employment upon their release,” Tarcza said. “Deputy Grant may or may not personally prepare food on any given day, but she was not primarily hired purely as a cook.”

Grant received the supplement before the Aramark contract, when the Sheriff’s Office had an in-house kitchen staff. It’s not clear if her duties prior to 2014 included inmate supervision.

In February, Gusman was ordered to provide job descriptions to a federal judge in a lawsuit regarding regarding unconstitutional conditions in the jail.

The Lens obtained copies of the report from the Sheriff’s Office and the city and found 37 deputies who had received the pay even though their job descriptions appeared to have nothing to do with law enforcement. Most of them appeared on Collins’ original list.

The auditor’s report also says top Sheriff’s Office employee Jerry Ursin was involved in a scheme involving off-duty detail work. According to the report, deputy Roy Austin, who coordinated off-duty work for the Sheriff’s Office, may have broken state law by operating a private security business. The report also alleges that Austin, who has since retired, overcharged clients for off-duty work, referred to as “details.”

Last month, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite charged Austin with wire fraud for an alleged scheme to inflate charges for details. Austin is accused of overcharging customers by more than $80,000 for event security by invoicing for work by “ghost employees” who didn’t actually perform any work.

The legislative auditor found evidence that Ursin, along with two other Sheriff’s Office employees, helped coordinate details and invoice clients for Austin’s business.

Austin was charged in a bill of information, which typically indicates that he is cooperating with investigators. The federal probe may also implicate Ursin, Gusman’s chief deputy, The New Orleans Advocate reported.

In the official response for Gusman, Tarcza declined to address the detail allegations because there’s an “ongoing internal investigation.”

Finally, the report said the Sheriff’s Office paid for $230,000 in renovations to the now-closed House of Detention during 2012 and 2013 without putting the job out for a bid.

The work was performed by Gulf State LLC, an unlicensed contractor. The company’s owner, Kendall Marquar, was convicted in 2014 of failing to file federal income taxes. He avoided prison time by assisting federal authorities in convicting John Sens, Gusman’s former purchasing director, in a bribery and bid-rigging scheme. According to the report, Marquar said Sens requested that Gulf State do the work.

Tarcza responded that the Sheriff’s Office has improved its procurement process, requiring formal written contracts and more thoroughly vetting bidders to make sure they are fully licensed.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Sheriff Marlin Gusman. (April 4, 2016)

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