James Gill: Who gets the keys? Standoff looming between Gusman, city over fate of New Orleans jail _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman speaks at a news conference called Monday to discuss Òorganizational changesÓ within the Sheriff's office.

Seeking to stave off a federal takeover of the city’s jail, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman is urging the U.S. Justice Department to come to the negotiating table and back away from its bid to place the jail in receivership — a move that would take control of the lockup away from Gusman and hand it to an outside administrator.

In a rare interview Monday, the sheriff described the government’s request as “insane” and “disheartening,” even as he held out hope that he would be granted an audience before Justice Department brass on the eve of a critical hearing in federal court.

A class-action lawsuit over conditions at the city’s lockup is expected to culminate Wednesday in U.S. District Court, where Gusman intends to ask Judge Lance Africk for more time to implement a list of reforms that were first ordered three years ago.

“I told them I’d be willing to fly out on the next plane to Washington, D.C.,” Gusman said, adding that he made his most recent offer Monday.

“We have emailed the Department of Justice and done all of this to try to get some sensibility into all of this. What we ought to be doing is sitting down, decision-maker to decision-maker.”

The sheriff took a swipe at the Justice Department’s lead attorney in the case, Laura Coon, referring to her as a “hired gun.”

“She’s not from here,” Gusman said, accusing the attorney of seeking a “notch” in her belt. “She’s pushing an agenda, not a resolution.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on Gusman’s statements.

Its attorneys have argued in recent court filings that Gusman lacks the ability to overhaul the jail and that “urgent and extraordinary action” is needed to address “the immediate risk of harm and death to the men, women and youth” being held in the understaffed lockup.

The sheriff has failed to implement most of the reforms spelled out in a consent decree he signed with the Justice Department in 2013, though he insists his office is making progress.

A team of court-appointed experts recently recommended that parts of the new $150 million Orleans Justice Center be shuttered until the Sheriff’s Office can retrain its deputies. Since then, Gusman has sent several hundred inmates to jails in other parishes.

Despite his entreaties, the sheriff said his lawyers are prepared for this week’s showdown with the government and the MacArthur Justice Center, the civil rights law firm that represents the city’s inmates in the 4-year-old litigation.

“We’re moving forward,” Gusman said. “It would cost the taxpayers a lot of money to (appoint a receiver), and, at the end of the day, we’re going to be able to demonstrate that we’re not suitable for a federal takeover.”

The sheriff has found support from the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, which sent a letter Friday to Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, warning that placing the jail in receivership “could diminish or detrimentally impact the voters of the city.”

If Africk grants the government’s request, Gusman would be stripped of his core responsibilities and have no say in the day-to-day operation of the jail.

Erika McConduit-Diggs, the local Urban League’s chief executive, wrote the Justice Department that the appointment of a receiver “may amount to a direct violation of the intent, spirit and/or letter of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

She proposed a “time-limited, accelerated reform strategy for the jail that is undergirded by rehabilitative practices and community support — an outcome most sought by all parties concerned.”

“What they’re asking for is simply to make sense out of this,” Gusman said. “Give the parties an opportunity to sit down.”

The normally close-mouthed sheriff has become increasingly outspoken in recent weeks, telling supporters and critics alike that conditions inside the Orleans Justice Center have been grossly misrepresented in the news media and federal court.

Last month, he delivered a “State of the Sheriff’s Office” address in which he insisted that violence has decreased in the jail, contradicting the testimony of corrections experts who have told Africk that the rate of jailhouse attacks remains alarmingly high and is “unacceptable.”

Despite years of litigation — and a seemingly endless stream of negative publicity about the jail — Gusman apparently remains popular with many voters, and he has fallen back on that political support amid the greatest challenge of his tenure.

While receivership would not oust him from office, the sheriff essentially is fighting for his job — and to avoid the humiliation of being sidelined indefinitely.

In their bid for receivership, lawyers for the Justice Department and MacArthur Justice Center said conditions at the city’s jail have become so oppressive that some inmates have begun harming themselves in an effort to be transferred to other facilities.

“The prisoners are taking control of the jail,” they wrote. “It is only a matter of time before more prisoners, or staff members, suffer serious injury or death.”

In the interview Monday, Gusman said the government’s request was premature because the consent decree requires “there be a good faith negotiation if any of the parties are having an issue.”

“They refuse to negotiate in good faith, despite our repeated demands,” the sheriff said. “This is insane that they would be moving forward with all of this, considering all of the improvements that have been done.”

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.