Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman's top deputy quits; new audit sheds light on detail scandal _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Sheriff Marlin Gusman right and Jerry Ursin on left.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s chief deputy, Gerald “Jerry” Ursin, resigned Monday amid a state and federal inquiry into off-duty deputy details, stepping down hours after the state Legislative Auditor’s Office released a long-awaited report that offered new details about the overbilling scandal.

The investigative audit, which had been many months in the making, also found that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office appears to have broken state law by collecting more than $1 million in state supplemental pay for deputies who were not eligible to receive those benefits.

Ursin, a longtime lawman who served as Gusman’s right-hand man, is expected to be charged in the coming days.

An FBI investigation already has yielded wire fraud charges against Roy Austin, a former Sheriff’s Office colonel accused of billing businesses for security details that deputies never actually worked. Ursin is accused of assisting Austin in his coordination of the details through Austin’s unlicensed private company, Austin Sales and Service.

Ursin is the second high-ranking deputy to step down in as many months, adding to the turmoil at the Sheriff’s Office and furthering an alarming turnover rate at all levels of the agency that has threatened the safety of inmates at the city’s troubled jail.

Ursin’s defense attorney, Pat Fanning, declined to comment on the reasons for his resignation. “It is what it is,” Fanning said by phone.

The legislative audit found that Austin, Ursin and two other Sheriff’s Office employees, Gary Bordelon and Rynika Stewart, improperly coordinated off-duty details during their regular hours. Many of the invoices, the auditors added, “were created using OPSO computers, printed on OPSO letterhead, and sent to customers of Austin Sales and Service Inc. using OPSO email accounts.”

“Although these invoices requested that payment be made to Austin Sales and Service Inc., the invoices thanked the customers on behalf of Sheriff Marlin Gusman for using the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office for their security needs,” the audit said.

More than a dozen deputies double-dipped, the audit found, working details even as they were being paid by the Sheriff’s Office. However, Austin was personally responsible for most of the roughly $5,000 in double-dipping, according to the audit.

Gusman disputed some of the auditors’ findings, insisting that state law does not clearly define which deputies are disqualified from receiving supplemental pay.

The Sheriff’s Office, he said, is working to reform its off-duty detail program but “is not prepared at this time to discuss what changes might be made to the program or when the revamp might be implemented.”

While he enjoyed Gusman’s support, Ursin had been viewed as a divisive figure within the Sheriff’s Office by many of his subordinates, including Carmen DeSadier, who recently resigned as the ranking deputy over the city’s jail amid a power struggle with Ursin.

“His abrasive tactics, questionable practices and bullying of personnel who attempt to work with me has created an atmosphere of fear and disdain,” DeSadier wrote in her Feb. 19 resignation letter. “This agency would be better served without his contemptuous influence.”

Austin’s and Ursin’s alleged roles in the overbilling scheme have previously been made public. But the audit also implicated Bordelon, a ranking Sheriff’s Office deputy, suggesting he may have violated state and federal law in part by “negotiating company checks payable to others.”

The audit found several checks stemming from overbilled security details that had been made payable to a dozen individuals but ended up in “bank accounts owned by Col. Austin and/or Chief Bordelon.”

“Multiple individuals to whom these checks were made payable confirmed that the endorsement signatures on the back of the checks were not their signatures,” the legislative audit says. “These individuals also confirmed that they did not receive, return or donate any of the checks or proceeds of the checks to Austin Sales and Service Inc.”

The audit notes that state law “prohibits a deputy sheriff from holding an ownership interest in any partnership, company or corporation where the venture is to perform any services of a law enforcement nature.”

Regarding supplemental pay, commissioned deputies are eligible under Louisiana law to take home an additional $500 a month from the state, as long as they have a year of service and were not “hired primarily to perform purely clerical or non-enforcement duties.”

The auditors identified 56 employees who, over a four-year period, received $1,026,083 in supplemental pay, even though they appear to have worked as “clerks, mail room employees, facility management personnel, kitchen personnel and other administrative personnel.”

Several of those employees told the auditors they had been placed on a rotation once a week to work a single shift inside the jail, believing that made them eligible to receive the state supplemental pay.

Members of the Louisiana Deputy Sheriffs Supplemental Pay Board of Review told the auditors that, in order to qualify for the supplemental pay, Orleans Parish deputies had to spend “at least 50 percent of their time on duties directly related to interacting with and supervising prison inmates.”

Gusman, who hired a law firm to respond to the audit on his behalf, said the investigative audit seems to turn state law “on its head” when it comes to supplemental pay. He maintained that Louisiana law fails to define the word “purely” as it pertains to the job duties — clerical or law enforcement — that determine whether deputies qualify for the extra pay.

The sheriff cited a number of examples in which he said deputies singled out by the auditors are interacting with inmates on a regular basis.

“If the deputy’s duties are mixed administrative and law enforcement duties, the deputy is still eligible for supplemental pay,” the law firm, Tarcza & Associates LLC, wrote in a response.

The legislative audit was initiated by a complaint filed by Bryan Collins, a former Sheriff’s Office deputy who resigned in 2013 and filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Gusman that was later dismissed.

“The Louisiana legislative auditor’s report is further confirmation of the abysmal state of affairs at Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office,” Collins said. “The OPSO will not willingly transform under the current administration. It must be guided by a firm yet fair external influence.”

The sheriff issued a statement Monday saying his office “has fully complied with the law, and if any objection can be made to a deputy’s entitlement to receive state supplemental pay, the objection must be filed with the independent board of review.”

“The legislative auditor does not make the determination on state supplemental pay issues,” Gusman added.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.