Lee Zurik Investigation: Sheriff's budget bloated by mystery legal fees

Updated: Jan. 21, 2015 at 1:27 AM CST
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Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, speaking to the City Council last year.
Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, speaking to the City Council last year.

A Tulane law professor has a strong reaction after seeing the details of an agreement made by the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office and one local law firm.

"Something isn't exactly kosher here," says Joel Friedman. "The people of this city should be shocked."

It's a job the firm Usry, Weeks & Matthews has held for decades. The past few years, the sheriff pays the firm about $1.7 million for legal work.

"The sheriff has no idea what he is getting for that money," says Friedman. "And I can't imagine that he doesn't want to know."

When we took a close look at the invoices sent in by the firm to the sheriff, we found that twice a month, they charge the sheriff $65,000, for a total of $130,000 a month.

The invoices have no detailed explanation, only a paragraph on the work the firm did for that month.

"I would expect the lawyer, as lawyers do, they keep time sheets," says Friedman. "Not literally sheets, now, it's all on computers – but they records of all the time they are spending and on what. Wrote letter, drafted a complaint, spoke with the client, blah blah blah."

Other law firms that do work for the sheriff submit an hourly account of their billings, breaking down every minute of work for which they billed the sheriff and the public.

Friedman comments, "If they are doing legitimate work and they're getting paid $65,000 every two weeks… I must have had some idea of what I think they should be paid per hour… I would like to know how many hours did they work this week. Did they work one hour? Did they work 29 hours? If they only worked one, should they take all the $65,000?"

No matter what they do, Usry, Weeks & Matthews gets $65,000 every two weeks. That's $32,500 every week, or $6,500 every weekday.

Friedman tells us, "Sometimes, if you know there's going to be a whole lot of work, it's cheaper to do it on a retainer basis, and fine. But to earn that kind of money, $7,000 a day, $6,000 a day... unless you have 10 lawyers and they're working all the time, that sounds like more money than any reasonable firm in New Orleans will spend."

Gusman declined our request for an interview but in a statement wrote that, when he became sheriff, he reviewed this billing arrangement and determined that using this capped fee procedure would save the Sheriff's Office at least 50 percent in potential legal fees. That means Gusman thinks paying Usry, weeks & Matthews hourly could cost $3.2 million a year.

Compare that to neighboring Jefferson Parish, though. In 2011, the Orleans Parish Sheriff paid outside attorneys, including Usry, Weeks & Matthews almost $1.9 million. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff, which is billed hourly, spent much less -- $700,000.

All attorneys in Jefferson Parish charge the sheriff a rate of $120 an hour. Again, Usry, Weeks & Matthews doesn't have an hourly rate with Gusman.

Hypothetically, let's say they had an hourly billing agreement and charged the sheriff a little more than neighboring Jefferson -- $200 an hour. At that rate, attorneys would have to work 32 hours a day to earn what Gusman is currently paying the firm -- four attorneys would have to work a full eight-hour day, every day, to reach the current pay.

Or let's do the math. According to the sheriff's statement, where he says a capped fee saves the sheriff 50 percent more, hourly billing could cost $3.2 million a year, or $12,307 a day. Even if Usry's firm charged $300 an hour, that would mean 41 hours of work every day, or more than five high-priced attorneys billing eight hours every day to Gusman.

"The Sheriff represents me," insists Friedman. "This is my money. And I don't understand why he is allowing this to go on."

In the statement, Gusman wrote that his office has a "billing agreement" with the firm that capped legal fees. This agreement made the fees paid for legal services predictable.

We asked for a copy of the agreement; they never gave us one.

Gusman wrote that Usry, Weeks & Matthews consults on a broad range of issues, including legislative matters, real estate, public records requests, contract review, investigation assistance and employee matters,

Every month, the law firm also bills the sheriff for legal research, postage and copies. The charges range between $3,000 and $4,000 every two weeks. And even for that, Usry, Weeks & Matthews doesn't provide a detailed account of the costs..

In Jefferson Parish, firms do get a bit more detailed, separating out the number of copies and postage being paid.

At last year's budget hearing, Gusman said he needed more money. "We must have a budget that is based on real life spending," he told the New Orleans City Council. "We've done our best to cut our own costs."

But Tulane's Friedman questions that, when it comes to a lucrative agreement -- what appears to be an unwritten agreement -- with a local law firm. He says, "If you owned a business, and you hired an attorney to represent you, and your business was so big that you were prepared to

pay $1.6 million in attorney's fees, what would you expect your attorney to provide for you, in terms of documentation as to what they have done? Would you have any interest in them keeping it a secret, a secret from you? Did you not want to know? And if you're a public entity, now, the Sheriff's Office… aren't I entitled to know?"

We did reach out to the law firm for this story, but they never responded.

According to company letterhead, eight attorneys work at Usry, Weeks & Matthews. We are not questioning the work or the capabilities of the firm -- they do work for a number of sheriffs in the state and the State Sheriff's Association. They also do work for the state attorney general, and records show in the last fiscal year for the state they made more than $2 million for that work.