City blasts Gusman in court over jail costs - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

City blasts Gusman in court over jail costs

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Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman on a tour of OPP (File) Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman on a tour of OPP (File)
KEVIN McGILL
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - An attorney for the city of New Orleans questioned Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman about expensive outside legal fees during a federal court hearing on reforms at the jail Gusman runs.

In hours of wide-ranging questions Monday about jail expenses, attorney Harry Rosenberg noted the sheriff's office spends roughly $1.7 million a year on one firm - an arrangement that Gusman says has been in effect since before he was elected in 2004. Gusman said he didn't have a detailed breakdown on the services provided.

The hearing is part of the court's work to determine how much Gusman needs to implement reforms embodied in an agreement he made with the U.S. Justice Department to improve conditions at the notoriously violent and rundown jail complex, which is funded by the city. The pact was reached in December. Africk formally approved it earlier this month over objections from Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration amid concerns that the financially strapped city cannot afford it.

Rosenberg touched on a variety of expenditures big and small in his questioning. He was cut off as he raised questions about campaign contributions from at least two people or businesses that had contracts with the jail. Objections from Gusman's lawyer were sustained by Africk, who also ended questions about a guilty plea by one former contractor, Richard Molenaar III. Molenaar recently pleaded guilty to bribing John Sens, the former director of purchasing for the sheriff's office, who pleaded guilty in March to taking kickbacks in the bid-rigging scheme.

Gusman says he needs more than the $23 million the city currently turns over to run the jail. While the sheriff costs have gone up, especially medical costs, the city maintains that inmate populations and annual bookings are going down. City officials have accused Gusman of mismanaging the lockup and have asked Africk to appoint someone to run the jail in place of Gusman.

The reform agreement was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of inmates in April 2012. The Justice Department later intervened in the class-action suit.

The agreement, known as a consent decree, calls for Gusman to provide adequate medical and mental health care and overhaul policies on use of force and rape prevention, among other reforms that are expected to require more money for personnel.

The city's accusations of mismanagement by Gusman have included release earlier this year of an inmate-made video showing brazen drug use, gambling, beer drinking and the brandishing of a loaded handgun in a cell in a now-closed part of the jail complex. Inmates testified about sexual assaults and beatings at the hands of guards or other inmates. Prison experts said treatment for mental or physical conditions was badly lacking and that violent inmates were often mixed in with vulnerable ones.

The sheriff, even while downplaying problems at the jail, said the agreement will aid reform, and he said the city inadequately funds the jail.

Lawyers for the SPLC and the Justice Department also attended Monday's hearing.

In opening arguments, Justice Department lawyer Laura Coon expressed the worry that the dispute between the city and sheriff will delay improvements at the jail, formally known as the Orleans Parish Prison. "Now is the time for the sheriff and the city to take ownership of the problem," she said.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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