Zurik: Some members of City Council security are not eligible to perform security tasks

One city councilmember’s driver ran personal errands including picking up the councilmember’s children from school
Updated: Feb. 22, 2021 at 10:00 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Members of the New Orleans City Council receive a unique perk, use of a city-owned vehicle and a security specialist contracted from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. A FOX 8 Investigation found two of those security specialists are not allowed to perform security functions.

“They don’t need 24-hour security at least not yet. I hope society doesn’t become so dangerous that municipal city councilmembers need 24-hour security,” Dillard University Political Analyst, Dr. Robert Collins, said. “But certainly there are situations when a city councilmember might need a police driver.”

FOX 8 surveyed eight cities across the country -- Birmingham, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans -- and only New Orleans provides a full-time security detail to councilmembers. In the city, they often serve a dual-role -- security and driver of the councilmember’s city-owned vehicle.

“To have a driver assigned 24-hours-a-day for a city councilmember, that doesn’t seem necessary. You should have access to a driver, you should have access to a vehicle, but for a medium-sized city like New Orleans, again is just not best practice,” Collins said.

The New Orleans City Council has an agreement with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office that each councilmember is provided a deputy, who is a full-time security officer. The total cost to taxpayers is nearly $560,000 per year. In comparison, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s security, a common practice among mayors of large cities, is provided through the city’s police department.

“Let me say this, there’s nothing wrong with asking the question,” Joe Giarrusso, Councilmember for District A, said. “I think we’re constantly looking at how do we create better efficiencies. I think we also need to be better at do as I say and not what I do and I think people should be skeptical particularly during covid.”

City councilmembers having full-time security is not new. This practice goes back decades.

“I use my guy out in the field all the time too,” Giarrusso said. “Because of COVID and staff restrictions I’m down a staff member right now and Greg [his security specialist] who drives me has always been really good about going out into the community and doing things as sort of boots on the ground.”

Giarrusso uses the 2018 incident where a machete-wielding man was arrested just steps away from New Orleans City Hall as an example of the security detail’s need.

“My security officer and Councilmember Moreno’s tried to corral him and make sure he didn’t get hurt and nobody else did,” Giarrusso recalled of the 2018 event.

District B Councilmember Jay Banks said just because New Orleans is the only city we found to use security for councilmembers, doesn’t mean it is a wrong practice.

“The fact that we have it and it’s something that we utilize doesn’t mean that it’s wrong because those other places aren’t doing it,” Banks said. “The fact is is that they are – now I can’t speak for any other councilmembers, but I can tell you mine participates in a daily basis with the day-to-day operations with me as a councilman.”

Every councilmember we spoke to said they use their deputy as an additional staff member in the office, even though they are not city hall employees and none is listed on each council office staff page.

“We do go into certain areas that may not be safe so having security there really provides me the opportunity to focus on the needs of our people,” District E Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen said.

The agreement between the council and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is meant to pull from the sheriff’s pool of available deputies -- but FOX 8 has found that two of those security specialists used by councilmembers are not able to perform security functions.

The ‘security specialist’ for District E Councilmember Nguyen and District B Councilmember Banks were both sent letters from the Orleans Parish Sheriff informing them they were not allowed to perform security functions since they were not certified from the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST).

Dennis Warren, who is assigned to Nguyen was told in a letter that since he does not possess a high school diploma, he’s prohibited from being employed or acting as a deputy sheriff. Sheriff Marlin Gusman said in the letter to Warren he is only authorized to act as a driver for councilmembers and is strictly prohibited from performing any security function, including carrying a weapon.

“He can’t carry a weapon, but that doesn’t mean he can’t stand next to me to make sure that I am in a safe area,” Nguyen said. “That doesn’t mean he can’t evaluate the area I’m going to to make sure that its safe and advise me if I should go there or not.”

Nguyen said she, like other councilmembers, use their detail to perform other jobs in the office. But throughout the interview, Nguyen said Warren provided security for her.

Bernard Newell, the detail for District B Councilmember Banks also received one of those letters, informing him he is to act as a civilian employee and cannot carry a weapon. Sheriff Gusman also told Newell he is only authorized to act as a driver.

“I guess the optic is real and I cannot debate the optic. I am comfortable with him as a person and he is someone who I trust. He is not POST certified,” Banks said.

Dillard University Political Analyst Dr. Robert Collins said he thinks taxpayers might question the hiring of these two drivers since security is the main purpose of the job.

The agreement between the city and sheriff’s office states the councilmember can select their detail from the existing pool of deputies employed by the Sheriff. Both Nguyen and Banks said they knew their drivers and asked them to apply for a job with the sheriff.

“We had the option of picking who we were comfortable with. I knew him [Bernard Newell]. It was my anticipation he would have been POST certified. That has not happened but we expected him to be POST certified,” Banks said. “But I would not be the first to have done that. There have been other councilmembers who have gone out on their own preferences of people who were not necessarily sheriff’s office, so this is not a new phenomenon for me.”

Many councilmembers in the past have used drivers or security personnel outside of the pool.

Both Warren and Newell are paid $56,000 a year. That’s the same amount as the commissioned deputies assigned to the rest of the council, minus a $6,000 state supplement for being commissioned.

A source told FOX 8 Nguyen used her driver to run personal errands, including picking up her children from school in her city-owned vehicle.

“The only time he actually picks up my kids is when I’m at a meeting and I’m working and he’s just standing there, waiting,” Nguyen said. “So for me to make sure that I’m focused on my meeting, he just picks up my kids and drops them off.”

When asked if it is right to use city resources to pick up her kids from school, Nguyen again pointed to her driver’s other work.

“If it’s not then I will definitely evaluate it, but it was basically trying to balance out my work schedule. He’s out in the field doing other stuff for the community as well, so just trying to juggle it,” she said.

Dr. Robert Collins said New Orleanians might disagree.

“It should not happen I think if you talk to most voters and taxpayers,” he said.

Records show Warren is Councilmember Nguyen’s third different driver or deputy in 2020.

The New Orleans City Council is working on a new policy for take-home cars. As of now, it does not include any language on the use of security details.

More than fifteen cities told FOX 8 they do not give their councilmembers a dedicated vehicle.

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