NEW ORLEANS (AP) - New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman raised the possibility Thursday that a lurid video depicting intravenous drug use and weapon possession in the jail he oversees may have been doctored.
Gusman was imprecise on how much of the video he had seen when it was first discovered by his office after it was made in 2009. And he said he didn't remember ever having seen the detailed images in the recently released video until he viewed excerpts this week on television.
"It doesn't bear any resemblance, in my mind, to what I saw," Gusman said after attorney Harry Rosenberg asked whether Gusman had any basis to believe the video had been doctored.
Gusman testified on the final day of a hearing on whether a jail improvement agreement between Gusman and the U.S. Justice Department should be approved. He has noted in news releases that the video-recorded activity took place in a now-shuttered jail building. He set a 4 p.m. news conference Thursday to discuss the case.
Rosenberg represents the city of New Orleans. Mayor Mitch Landrieu opposes the agreement, saying the jail is mismanaged by Gusman and that the agreement would force the city to spend millions on a badly run facility. The city wants federal authorities to appoint a receiver to take over responsibility for running the jail.
The Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents inmates who sued to improve conditions, are urging approval of the agreement, noting that a hearing scheduled for May is set to sort out funding issues. U.S. District Judge Lance Africk gave no indication when he would rule.
In early Thursday questioning, Rosenberg cast doubts on the idea that the video had been altered, noting that testimony indicates the video had been locked away in a Sheriff's Office safe for about four years.
He asked why Gusman never contacted state or federal authorities to investigate the videos, which also show an inmate apparently wandering Bourbon Street while he was supposed to be locked up. Gusman said his primary concern was to find whether any of his staff had been complicit in the activity. He said no charges were filed because the contraband was not found in the cell during a subsequent search.
Prison consultant Jeffrey Schwartz, who testified after Gusman, was incredulous at the sheriff's answers about the video.
"Most people would have remembered every moment of the video and would have turned heaven and earth to investigate it," Schwartz said.
Rosenberg's wide-ranging questions touched on numerous topics, including federal guilty pleas by two former jail officials on bribery charges. Gusman said he has not investigated vendors who did business with two former jail officials who pleaded guilty to bribery charges. Gusman said he is waiting to see what the continuing federal investigation reveals.
Gusman defended the decision to build a state-of-the-art kitchen for a new jail building under construction with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local funds. Rosenberg noted that it could serve 25,000 meals a day for an inmate population of less than 2,500. Gusman said the decisions were made in 2008, when future inmate populations were difficult to determine in a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
At times, Gusman acknowledged various problems at the jail, particularly with the physical condition of the city-owned facilities and a low-paid staff that is too small. But, when asked at one point by Rosenberg whether the jail was providing a safe and secure environment even before the consent decree was signed, Gusman said, "To the best of our ability that's what we've been doing."
Then Rosenberg walked Gusman through a series of allegations made in documents or by experts supporting the legal actions by inmate plaintiffs and Justice officials that led to the consent decree, including statements that the jail is "dysfunctional."
"Do you agree that either you are dysfunctional or the operations of the Orleans Parish Prison are dysfunctional?" Rosenberg asked.
"No," Gusman said, although he later added: "I think we're going to be a lot more functional when we get the new building."