ZURIK: Orleans Sheriff fires communications director after ethics board opinion, FOX 8 investigations

Published: Sep. 1, 2022 at 10:27 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has fired its communications director, Timothy David Ray, after FOX 8 questioned her decision to hire him, and found potential issues with Ray’s contract and invoices.

It comes just a day before the State Ethics Board was also set to vote on an advisory opinion, that the sheriff’s office violated the state’s ethics laws when it hired Ray and his mother.

Sheriff Susan Hutson hired Timothy David Ray as her Chief Communications Officer. He was a contract employee and invoices show he could have made $175,000 this year, more than the former Communications Director for the City of New Orleans.

Ray’s mother, Deborah Chapman, also works for the sheriff at a rate of $155,000 a year. Chapman ran Hutson’s election campaign and now serves as a senior adviser. Since she’s on the sheriff’s executive team, the Ethics Board says that gives her check-signing authority, which they say poses an ethics question.

Louisiana has nepotism laws where immediate family members can’t supervise their relatives.

“Apparently, it appears that his mother is in a position of responsibility with the sheriff’s office where she has signing authority on checks. So, this potentially could put him in a situation where he has to get his mother’s approval for his contracts for his paycheck,” Dillard University Political Analyst Robert Collins says. “This is obviously a conflict of interest, you shouldn’t have needed a formal ethics opinion paper to know that.”

MORE: ZURIK: Questions surround hiring, pay and invoices of Sheriff Hutson’s communications director

Back in late June, Assistant Sheriff Perlina Thomas emailed the ethics board, asking if Ray could work for the sheriff. The ethics board reviewed the job arrangement and drafted an opinion that concludes Ray is prohibited from providing services to the sheriff while his mother is employed there.

“If they really knew that there was going to be an ethics issue, and obviously they did if they asked for an opinion, they should have asked that before he was hired, or before he was contracted. That’s the standard procedure,” Collins says. “But now he’s actually working there, and he’s receiving money, and now they’re asking for an ethics opinion afterward. It makes you think that they thought they were going to get caught doing something. So, they wanted to get a formal opinion first, before somebody filed a formal ethics complaint against them.”

Over the past few months, FOX 8 has had trouble getting answers from Ray. Since the sheriff took office in May, Ray has failed to respond to emails or send us press releases about major incidents at the jail. Political analysts feel that may be because of FOX 8′s prior investigations into Ray, when he served as interim First City Clerk of Court. Those stories raised questions about checks he wrote to vendors in his final days in office and led to Ray’s law license being suspended for a year.

When FOX 8 asked Sheriff Hutson for her list of employees and outside contractors, Ray was left off those lists. FOX 8 then asked for records specifically related to Ray. The sheriff’s office handed over documents that contained handwritten invoices from Ray submitted bi-weekly.

On Wednesday, Hutson released a statement to FOX 8 that reads: “Mr. Ray is a key member of my Executive Team who is performing the role that three separate contractors performed under the prior sheriff. He is on call 24/7 and by his service as a contractor, we save taxpayers money.”

However, that didn’t appear to be correct. Multiple sources tell FOX 8 that former Sheriff Marlin Gusman paid those contractors a combined total of $66,000 per year for media work. That means Ray is making $109,000 more than what the prior sheriff spent on communications workers.

The sheriff’s office didn’t turn over Ray’s contract, but FOX 8 was able to obtain a copy through an outside source. It shows Ray is supposed to be paid $155,000 per year, not $175,000.

The contract spells out that Ray was supposed to be paid $5,900 every two weeks and that he should receive an additional $500 a month in health insurance reimbursements. But Ray was receiving more than his contracted amount, possibly overbilling by $1,000 per month.

“It appears that the numbers don’t add up, it appears that the math doesn’t work,” said Collins. “And as we’ve seen in recent years, politicians always get in trouble when the math doesn’t work, when the numbers don’t work … When you’re dealing with taxpayer money, you have to make sure the amount of money that you’re contracted for is the amount of money that you’re getting paid. Otherwise, there’s going to be an issue.”

Late Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours before an ethics board was scheduled to vote on the opinion, Orleans Sheriff Susan Hutson told FOX 8 she had terminated Ray’s employment.

Her full statement reads: “In an effort to continually operate with the highest ethical standards, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office self-reported and requested an opinion from the Louisiana Ethics Board about contracted communications services provided by Timothy David Ray.

In its draft opinion, the Ethics Board concluded that Timothy David Ray is prohibited from contracting or subcontracting with the Sheriff’s Office, while his mother, Senior Advisor Deborah Chapman, is employed by OPSO.

As soon as I became aware of this draft opinion, I immediately took steps to terminate the contract, effective Aug. 31. I am grateful for the services Timothy did provide us starting with my campaign and as my team and I transitioned into our leadership roles here at the Sheriff’s Office.

At the same time, my team and I are committed to upholding the highest standards of conduct for ourselves and everyone who works at the Sheriff’s Office.

I will soon conduct a deeper analysis of our communications needs and strategic direction, but in the interim, I have directed Public Information Officer Philip Stelly to be responsible for media queries in the near term.”

Timothy David Ray issued a statement following his termination:

“Today, I learned Sheriff Hutson decided to cancel our agreement after receiving a draft of an advisory opinion about her office hiring me as a contractor.

My legal advisors and I believe this decision is very premature since the Ethics Review Board was not supplied with accurate information from Pearlina Thomas and they are only scheduled to consider the matter tomorrow.

The Sheriff has offered to hire me directly as a full employee (with benefits, a vehicle, and gas) - I appreciate her offer, but will await the consideration from the Ethics Review Board. My lawyer supplied them with accurate and additional information about the OPSO contract today.”

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