New Orleans jail, police reform cases in 2 courts

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Lawyers for the city told a federal appeals court Monday that Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration was "blindsided" by the added costs of an agreement Sheriff Marlin Gusman made to overhaul the violent, unsanitary city jail.

The city lawyers are hoping a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will cancel an expensive agreement New Orleans officials signed with the Justice Department last year to overhaul a scandal-prone police department. The agreement to reform the jail came later, but the appeals court appeared skeptical the city was blindsided.

"This $34 million figure can't come as a surprise to you, can it?" Judge Eugene Davis said at one point to City Attorney Sharonda Williams. He was referencing a figure the Justice Department said it had suggested more than a year ago as a starting point for negotiations on funding reform of the jail, formally known as the Orleans Parish Prison.

Williams insisted the real costs of meeting requirements in the jail agreement - including increased guards and improving medical and psychiatric care - are still being worked out but could total tens of millions more than the city currently pays to Gusman's office to run the jail.

The judges also questioned city lawyers closely on claims the police pact should be thrown out because a discredited former assistant U.S. attorney was in on the negotiations. Sal Perricone resigned last year after it became public that he was behind anonymous blog posts highly critical of, among others, city officials and police chief Ronal Serpas.

Justice Department lawyers insisted Perricone's role was limited and noted negotiations continued for months after he left.

The 5th Circuit hearing on the police agreement was being held even as the costs of the jail agreement were being discussed at the U.S. District courthouse next door. There, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk heard testimony and evidence on the need for more deputies to staff the jail.

Both hearings were the result of complex litigation, fierce political battles and the city's shifting position on court-imposed police reforms it once embraced.

Landrieu came into office in May 2010, inviting the Justice Department to investigate a police department tarnished by decades of scandals and reeling from federal investigations and trials over the deaths and injuries of unarmed civilians in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The department's probe alleged widespread abuses - among them questionable use of force and bias against women, minorities and gays. An agreement was signed by the city last summer amid great fanfare, and at an estimated cost of more than $50 million, spread over several years.

But, by January, Landrieu wanted out, citing the costs of Gusman's jail reform agreement, estimated to cost $20 million per year or more.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan approved the police agreement over the city's objections. The city appealed, leading to Monday's hearing before Davis and judges Carl Stewart and Jacques Wiener. They did not indicate when they would rule.

Meanwhile, in Africk's courtroom, the arguments over how much reforming the jail will cost and where the money should come from continued.

Blake Arcuri, arguing for Gusman's office, said the city is obligated to fund the jail. "What the city is asking the court to do is turn its back on state law," Arcuri said.

Harry Rosenberg, an attorney hired by the city, said Gusman has mismanaged the jail and has not been forthcoming about all his resources. "The sheriff just says, 'Just show me the money, just give me the money,'" Rosenberg said.

Witnesses included jail officials who said the facility is badly understaffed, with some sections having to be locked down so deputies can patrol other sections. One problem is a starting salary of less than $10 an hour, said Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin. "We lose people to McDonald's, Burger King, fast food," Ursin said.

Africk has another hearing on the jail's financial matters set for September.

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