Three years ago, when videos of inmates gambling, guzzling beer, snorting drugs and even playing with a handgun inside the city’s jail generated national headlines, the walls seemed to be caving in around Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
The anarchy captured in the amateur footage suggested that no one, much less the sheriff, had control of Orleans Parish Prison.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked a judge to hand the keys of the lockup to a federal receiver, a drastic proposal that would have stripped the sheriff of his core responsibilities.
Unfazed, Gusman weathered a torrent of negative press and, in court hearings and news conferences, deflected any suggestion that he was responsible for the terrible conditions at OPP — a disaster the sheriff blamed on inadequate city funding, a deteriorated physical plant and a host of other circumstances.
“This is not Boise, Idaho,” he told reporters at the time. “We have a violent crime problem in New Orleans, and that problem crosses over into our jails.”
Less than a year later, Gusman won a third four-year term, squelching the comeback bid of Charles Foti, the former longtime sheriff who had been blamed for his own share of jailhouse debacles.
That March 2014 election victory highlighted Gusman’s political resilience, an uncanny immunity to scandal that has followed him from City Hall, where he served for years as chief administrative officer and then on the City Council, to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, an agency he took over without a shred of prior law enforcement experience.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and he’s always surrounded by smoke,” said Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans. “People really like Marlin, and they see him as a nice guy. They may not be very happy about how he does his job, yet they continually vote for him.”
The latest controversy dogging Gusman involves an FBI investigation into off-duty details by his deputies, an inquiry that, according to numerous sources, has implicated Jerry Ursin, the sheriff’s chief deputy.
Ursin and former Sheriff’s Office Col. Roy Austin are accused of conspiring to overcharge businesses that paid Austin’s private company for security services in a scheme that relied on billings for “ghost employees,” or deputies who did not actually work at special events.
Austin is expected to plead guilty to recently filed federal charges of wire fraud, while Ursin is expected to face charges of his own in the coming days. The state Legislative Auditor’s Office will publish a report Monday with new information about the alleged detail fraud, among other investigative findings.
A cloud, not a hurricane
Sources familiar with the inquiry have given no indication that Gusman will be charged with a crime, even though the case has penetrated his inner circle.
The sheriff has sought to distance himself from the prosecution, describing the off-duty details as “independent of OPSO business and related to a private business.” When a reporter contacted him recently to seek his reaction to the case, the sheriff asked: “Why are you calling me?”
Gusman survives conflict in unconventional ways, eschewing confrontation — and in recent years avoiding the media — and delegating his most contentious battles to a trusted cadre of attorneys. He rarely raises his voice in public, speaking in measured, almost professorial tones, even when he’s accusing the City Council of systematically underfunding his office.
“With Marlin, his political personality and his personal style are one and the same. You don’t see Marlin erupting in anger. You don’t see him waving his finger and engaging in volatile exchanges,” said Silas Lee, a veteran Xavier University pollster and political science professor.
“When events are blowing up around him, he’s always been low-key, very level-headed. Yes, a cloud has been hanging over him; however, it hasn’t developed into a Category 5 hurricane.”
It’s why during his years at City Hall he picked up the nickname “Cool Hand Luke.”
Paul Beaulieu, the former afternoon host and general manager at WBOK-AM, a talk-radio station that targets African-American listeners, said Gusman’s “calming way” and no-nonsense approach to government have endeared him to voters. Many of them believe the sheriff has been the target of a “concerted effort to undermine what he is doing,” Beaulieu said.
“ ‘Steady’ is a key word because I think that’s what people admire about him,” Beaulieu said in an interview. “He almost has the opinion that, ‘I’m just going to plow ahead and do what I consider the right thing the best I can do, and let the naysayers fall where they may.’ ”
But some of Gusman’s old political allies concede privately that they’re disappointed with him. And last month, a small group of pastors joined the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition in demanding he resign.
James Williams, one of the sheriff’s lawyers, held a news conference in response.
Questions about oversight
The allegations of overbilling for off-duty details are not the first criminal charges to rattle the top tiers of the Sheriff’s Office during Gusman’s tenure.
In 2013, less than a month before the shocking OPP videos surfaced, Gusman’s former purchasing director, John Sens, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to commit bribery, admitting his role in a bid-rigging scheme at Orleans Parish Prison that also involved former Sheriff’s Office Col. Gerard Hoffman.
Billy Short, Gusman’s former chief deputy, also had been a central figure in that FBI investigation, but he died in October 2011 without being charged.
Sens, the brother of New Orleans Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens, a longtime political ally of Gusman, was sentenced to five years in federal prison for fixing bids for contractors and taking about $30,000 in cash, a free pool installation and other gifts. He had worked for Gusman since 2005.
Hoffman, who headed the sheriff’s maintenance office, received five years of probation for his role in the kickback scheme.
At the very least, the purchasing and off-duty detail scandals raise questions about Gusman’s oversight of the Sheriff’s Office and the officials he has tapped to run the agency.
His last two chief corrections deputies resigned amid internal strife and faltering efforts to implement court-ordered reforms at the city’s jail. The most recent one to quit, Carmen DeSadier, largely blamed her departure on Ursin’s overbearing style.
“I think that’s perhaps another chink in his armor,” Beaulieu said. “He looks at somebody’s record and experience and feels they may be able to carry out the job and the responsibilities, and it doesn’t happen that way all the time.”
Gusman, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Loyola University College of Law, came up through the LIFE political organization founded by former Mayor Dutch Morial, the city’s first black mayor. Gusman served as Morial’s director of property management. Then, in 1994, Mayor Marc Morial appointed him chief administrative officer, a post Gusman held for six years, until he was elected to the City Council.
When he ran for sheriff, in 2004, Gusman sought to play down his ties to the Morials, amid a series of federal probes that took aim at contracts issued by Marc Morial’s administration.
The most prominent of those investigations centered on a massive energy-efficiency contract between City Hall and Johnson Controls Inc. that was hatched while Gusman was still CAO. The City Council and the public were largely kept in the dark on the deal, though it was the largest contract the city had ever awarded and obligated the city to more than $80 million in payments over a 20-year span.
Years later, prosecutors convicted Kerry DeCay, who was director of property management and reported to Gusman, as well as Johnson Controls project manager Terry Songy and two Morial pals, Stan “Pampy” Barre and Reginald Walker, in a scheme to skim more than $1 million from the bloated deal.
In an early look at the strategy he’s often employed since then, Gusman — by then on the City Council — mostly pleaded ignorance, saying he had had little involvement in the negotiations with Johnson Controls and still didn’t “know enough facts about it to be able to express an opinion on it.”
In 2013, when Gusman was questioned in U.S. District Court about the shocking jailhouse videos, he suggested the images had been “doctored up” in some fashion and denied that OPP, commonly considered among the worst jails in America, was unsafe.
“Look, in the most secure facilities, you still have unfortunate incidents,” the sheriff testified. “You don’t want it to happen, but it happens. You try to do your best to avoid it and do your best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.