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.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has been discussing a potential compromise this week that could stave off a federal takeover of the city’s jail while appeasing the U.S. Justice Department and the inmates who filed a class-action lawsuit over conditions at the lockup, according to several people familiar with the talks.

Details of the discussions remained under wraps Wednesday, but there were mounting indications that a settlement could be in the offing, including a federal judge’s decision to postpone resuming a hearing intended to determine whether Gusman will retain control of the jail or be supplanted by an outside administrator known as a receiver.

That proceeding, which began May 25, had been scheduled to resume Monday; after three delays, it is now set to continue Friday if no agreement is reached by then.

With his job on the line, Gusman had been expected to take the witness stand this week to defend his efforts to implement a series of jail reforms he agreed to more than three years ago when he signed a federal consent decree.

The sheriff would not comment on the particulars of the settlement talks, but he issued a statement Wednesday that suggested he has left little wiggle room for deal-making.

A source familiar with the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Gusman is not inclined to accept a proposal that even resembles federal receivership — a scenario that would strip him of the bulk of his duties.

The government and the inmate plaintiffs have asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to sideline the sheriff indefinitely, saying he has stood in the way of progress and failed to stem rampant violence inside the newly opened Orleans Justice Center.

But even as Gusman has come to the negotiating table, another source said, he has balked at the notion of ceding any authority to an outside official who would be tasked with jump-starting the languishing jail reforms. That official, or officials, presumably would be selected by — or with significant input from — the federal government and the MacArthur Justice Center, the civil rights law firm representing the city’s inmates.

“The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office remains steadfast in our opposition to a federal takeover of the jail,” Gusman said in his statement Wednesday, touting his agency’s “significant progress” in “the face of adversity” over the past few years. “However, we have always been willing and remain willing to work with the Department of Justice, the plaintiffs and the city to move forward in the best interests of the Sheriff’s Office employees, inmates (and) citizens of New Orleans.”

The settlement talks come three weeks into the hearing in which Africk has heard testimony from several corrections experts about a degenerating state of affairs at the jail. They said the Orleans Justice Center, which opened in September, is dangerously understaffed, to the extent that at times entire tiers are unsupervised.

Hundreds of inmates awaiting trials have been relocated to jails in northeastern Louisiana for that reason — an expensive arrangement that has further strained the rocky relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.

On that front, Gusman’s attorneys planned to call Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, as their next witness in the hearing, seeking to make the case that City Hall has failed to provide the sheriff with adequate funding for the jail. State law requires Landrieu’s administration to pay for the care of local inmates, but the sheriff and the mayor have disagreed on what constitutes sufficient funding.

The government and plaintiffs have highlighted the frequency of attacks in the jail, including a sexual assault this year that went unnoticed by deputies for days. Their witnesses have told Africk that something must change regarding the leadership at the jail if the Sheriff’s Office hopes to satisfy the sweeping requirements of the consent decree.

Gusman has contended that the criticism of his performance is exaggerated and outdated, pointing to what he says is progress in recent months that has not been reflected in the evidence presented by the plaintiffs and Justice Department.

He also has pointed the finger at city leaders for refusing to approve pay raises for his deputies, who are leaving the Sheriff’s Office at an alarming rate.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.