State corrections officials this year quietly fired the director of the Bridge City Center for Youth, a troubled juvenile detention center in Jefferson Parish, amid a flurry of internal controversies that included the improper hiring of several guards with criminal histories.
One of the guards, Gary M. François, charged with murder in last year’s Christmas Eve shooting at the Oakwood Center shopping mall in Terrytown, had been hired a few months earlier at the lockup despite an alarming rap sheet that spanned seven years and included four outstanding warrants at the time of his hiring, according to records obtained by The New Orleans Advocate.
The firing capped a tumultuous tenure for the director, Angela Sutton, whose leadership had been called into question as employee turnover soared on her watch and allegations of mismanagement permeated the day-to-day operations at Bridge City.
A 30-page termination letter, which Sutton sought to have expunged from her personnel record last month, outlines a slew of alleged policy violations, ranging from Sutton’s hiring of a cousin to her sluggish response to a scandal at the facility in which a female guard was caught having sex in the laundry room with a 17-year-old male inmate.
At one point, Sutton’s superiors in the state Office of Juvenile Justice said, her repeated failure to pay vendor invoices “put milk delivery in jeopardy” for the entire agency.
“In many cases,” the termination letter says, “things that should have been routinely handled were not being handled.”
Sutton took the helm at Bridge City in early 2014 and was officially terminated this past April — a departure that was not announced by the state even after her successor, Basil Richards, took her place.
Emails released in response to a public records request show that Sutton had been asked to resign in early February, just weeks after Monica Samuel, a guard at Bridge City, was booked on sexual malfeasance.
Before releasing the termination letter to The Advocate last week, state officials apparently had agreed to scrub the disciplinary action from Sutton’s personnel record under the terms of a State Civil Service settlement reached last month. Civil Service records released by the state show that Sutton was permitted to submit a voluntary resignation — retroactive to April 21 — and was paid $5,000 in back wages.
Sutton did not return calls seeking comment. Her attorney, Floyd Falcon Jr., declined to discuss the case, saying he was surprised state officials released the termination letter.
“We made a settlement agreement that said this all was supposed to be expunged from her record,” Falcon said.
The fact that François had been employed at Bridge City when he was accused of fatally shooting James Vaughn at the mall was first reported several months ago by WDSU-TV. But Sutton’s termination letter opens a window into the negligence surrounding François’ hiring, showing that state officials, after an apparent audit of employee records, discovered at least seven other instances in 2014 in which guards with criminal histories were hired at Bridge City without thorough screening.
Most of those employees had relatively minor arrest records, but one, Natasha Gaines, had been accused of attempted murder.
Authorities say that François, seeking to settle a debt, gunned down Vaughn inside a Foot Locker store, sending panic through the West Bank mall on Christmas Eve. He has since been charged with assaulting a deputy inside the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center.
François’ arrest history — which included counts of aggravated battery, resisting arrest, disturbing the peace and simple criminal damage, among others — had been placed on Sutton’s desk for further review when he applied at Bridge City in August 2014. According to Sutton’s termination letter, he was permitted to begin work “without having an approved criminal record check.” Under Office of Juvenile Justice policy, the hiring should have required additional approval that Sutton did not seek.
State officials fired François a few days after he began work, based on his “history of criminal activity” that included about a dozen charges and four outstanding warrants. But he was rehired in October after showing documentation that some of his charges had been dismissed, including a battery case in Lincoln Parish in which the victim had moved to Michigan and “did not want to return to testify.”
Criminal histories are not automatically disqualifying for those applying for work at the Office of Juvenile Justice unless the crime involves a child or juvenile, said Beth Touchet-Morgan, the agency’s deputy assistant secretary. Arrests and convictions are otherwise judged on a case-by-case basis, she said, adding that agency policy had not been followed in François’ hiring.
Today, the agency’s regional directors “have taken a larger role in the hiring process,” Touchet-Morgan said. “In addition, we are implementing regularly scheduled audits of hiring packets to ensure that the policy around criminal background checks is being followed.”
If Sutton had been on thin ice after the embarrassment of François’ arrest, her troubles worsened in January when another guard walked in on Samuel and the 17-year-old inmate having sex. Sutton’s superiors criticized her for failing to report the incident in accordance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act and for not acting upon a report she had received about a week earlier warning that Samuel might be “having inappropriate relationships with youth.”
Sutton also was faulted for not following up on an earlier altercation between Samuel and a co-worker at the lockup. “You stated you failed to ask the appropriate questions because you were tired, had taken a sleeping aid and had a glass of wine,” the termination letter says.
Sutton’s termination letter included several other incidents that state corrections officials described as policy violations. Last December, for instance, two guards got into a car crash in the parking lot of Bridge City. One of them, Patrick Lane, who had been reporting to work at the time, admitted after being taken to the infirmary that he had been drinking.
“You did not call the police to report the accident and the employee as an impaired driver,” the letter to Sutton says, “nor did you instruct anyone else to do so.”
Sutton also was accused of dragging her feet when it came to disciplinary actions at Bridge City and of failing to manage overtime, a problem that was exacerbated by the “extreme turnover in staffing” during her tenure.
Sutton previously served as director of the now-shuttered Jetson Center for Youth in Baker. She was transferred to Bridge City a few weeks before Jetson closed.
The struggles at Bridge City have continued even after Sutton’s ouster. Last month, questions about staffing levels resurfaced after a group of teens overpowered a guard and swiped his keys, allowing two teens to escape the facility.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.