Lee Zurik Investigation: A tale of two sheriffs

Updated: May. 8, 2013 at 10:15 PM CDT
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Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman (left) and St. John Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre
Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman (left) and St. John Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman writes the law firm Usry, Weeks & Matthews a bi-weekly check, totaling at least $65,000. The payment is made with little proof of work done by the law firm. They don't submit a detailed hourly billing account, don't even charge an hourly rate, only a bi-weekly flat fee with some added-on costs, for a total of about $1.7 million a year.

In nearby St. John Parish, they have a much different arrangement. There, Usry, Weeks & Matthews submits detailed billings -- an account of all work done for the sheriff there -- and charges an hourly rate of $120.

"Now this tells me they know how to do it properly," says Tulane law professor Joel Friedman. "Why are they billing St. John Parish sheriff properly and not Orleans Parish sheriff? My guess is, because they can."

If Gusman had an arrangement similar to that of Sheriff Mike Tregre in St. John -- a $120 an hour deal with Usry, Weeks & Matthews -- the payments would likely be much different. Let's do the math.

The firm's flat fee in Orleans Parish earns it $1.56 million a year. If you divide that by the St. John Parish hourly rate, $120, that means the firm would have to do 13,000 hours of work a year in Orleans to earn that money. That's 50 hours of billable work every work day.

Friedman says, "You'd have to be working 60-70 hours a day -- which of course is impossible -- or have three, four, five or 10 people working eight hours a day, and that's all they're doing. It's not possible, it's just not possible."

It does lead to a very important question to New Orleans taxpayers: How can the firm charge one sheriff 120 dollars an hour, and charge another a flat fee, obviously at a much higher hourly rate, with no detailed proof of work?

"The people should want to know, how is this possible," says Friedman. "This is a huge amount of money, $135,000 per month. I'm aware I'm not good at math, but I know there is 12 months... that's $1.5 million.

But there's more.

Usry, Weeks & Matthews also has an arrangement with the Louisiana Sheriff's Law Enforcement Program. We're told they don't have any contract or formal written agreement.

The program allows Louisiana sheriffs to self-insure against public liability for their acts and acts of their employees. The group is funded with money from each sheriff's office.

Each month, Usry, Weeks & Matthews bills the program $135,000.

As Joel Friedman points out, that's essentially the same thing as the Gusman arrangement -- no contract, no detailed bills, only two words on the invoice, "professional services." From this, the law firm makes $1.62 million a year.

"It's not funny, it's disgraceful," Friedman insists. "I'm not prone to calling people names but I just don't understand, how can you bill $135,000 per month? And I see these for different months so this is not per year. This is a $135,000 retainer to this group. I have no idea what they're doing because of course, as with the bill to the Orleans Parish Sheriff, there's nothing stated here except for two words, 'professional services.' No responsible lawyer and no responsible public client, public entity client, should accept such a thing… Shame on them, shame on the sheriffs."

The law firm also makes millions from the state attorney general, and provides detailed billings for that work. Usry, Weeks and Matthews does BP oil spill work for the AG and charges a higher hourly rate for that work, $375. Friedman says it's more specialized than what they're doing for the sheriff.

All totaled, that's more than $5.5 million of public money -- more than half with little to no accountability of why they earned it.

Friedman says, "To have no explanation… is a callous disregard for the public interest."

This all takes us back to the Orleans Parish Sheriff.

Here are the most recent bills from the law firm from last month: same amount of money, same lack of explanation of work. As the sheriff fights for money to run his prison, our Tulane law professor wants to know how Marlin Gusman can still justify such a lucrative arrangement that gives New Orleanians little information about how their money is being spent.

"No one's denied that these are the bills," says Friedman. "No one's said, 'Mr. Zurik, you don't have the real bills here, the real detailed bills.' Nobody's come forward with the detailed bills. So they are telling you and they are telling me, 'We don't care… it doesn't matter what you think and more importantly it doesn't matter what the taxpayer thinks.' And that's shocking to me, and very, very disturbing… Those bills are continuing to be sent, which is just telling you and telling me, 'We're above these kinds of public accountability.' And that just can't be in a democracy, it just can't be. That's what so frustrating and enraging to me."

Gusman has already declined our request for an on camera interview. The Louisiana Sheriff's Law Enforcement Program also said no to our interview request.