In a scalding lecture from the bench, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk on Wednesday berated a lawyer hired recently by Sheriff Marlin Gusman for filing a “self-serving” series of court documents in the middle of the night, just hours before a hearing on the status of court-ordered reforms at Orleans Parish Prison.
The hearing underscored many of the familiar struggles the Sheriff’s Office has faced in implementing the jail overhaul, and it revealed that the opening of Gusman’s new 1,438-bed jail has again been postponed. The delay had been foreseeable, as the Sheriff’s Office does not yet have in place a governing set of policies and procedures to operate the facility.
But Africk reserved his harshest criticism in months for a Gusman lawyer who only hours before the 8:30 a.m. hearing filed an unsolicited, 11-page memorandum touting “extraordinary progress” and the “significant effort the (Sheriff’s Office) has expended” toward satisfying its federal consent decree, the agreement between Gusman and the U.S. Justice Department that requires wholesale changes at the prison.
Africk described the documents as inappropriate and ordered them removed from the court record. The filings, which had appeared about 1 a.m., sought to highlight the strides Gusman’s office has made in improving conditions at the troubled jail. But Africk said they represented an incomplete account that “doesn’t tell the story of the tardiness we’ve encountered” from the Sheriff’s Office in fulfilling a long list of mandated jail reforms.
“I look at it as a (public relations) document,” Africk said, “and I’m not going to allow the court to be used as a PR agent.”
The documents, filed by James M. Williams, who enrolled as an additional lawyer for Gusman in the jail litigation in October, described deputy recruitment efforts, job fairs and several recent hires the Sheriff’s Office has made, referring the judge to employee résumés attached as exhibits.
“It was my attempt to try to educate the court on the progress we’ve made,” Williams told the judge.
“You’re not educating me at 1 a.m. in the morning,” Africk fired back. “You’re not educating me at all.”
Africk, who has grown increasingly impatient with the pace of progress at the jail, said his “gut” told him the sheriff’s filings boiled down to “an offensive attempt” to forestall a motion for contempt by the Justice Department and attorneys who represent OPP inmates, a class of plaintiffs whose landmark lawsuit prompted the jail reforms.
Inmate advocates, led by the MacArthur Justice Center, have expressed frequent alarm over the risk of violence and sexual assault that inmates at OPP still face while awaiting trial, and they could seek sanctions from the court if the Sheriff’s Office continues to miss deadlines outlined in the consent decree.
The judge also raised concerns Wednesday that the sprawling jail litigation has become “overlawyered,” noting Gusman now has two private law firms handling the case, while Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration also has engaged two firms. The city remains actively involved in the litigation because state law requires it to pay for inmate care.
Williams, of the firm Gauthier, Houghtaling & Williams, has joined attorney Blake Arcuri and the Usry, Weeks & Matthews firm in providing legal services to the sheriff. The city, meanwhile, has relied on Harry Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney who works for the firm Phelps Dunbar, and Ralph Capitelli, of Capitelli & Wicker, in addition to the advice of City Attorney Sharonda Williams.
The mounting legal fees are being doled out even as the city and the Sheriff’s Office continue to fight over how to spend limited resources on changes at the jail. “The taxpayers are paying for it at the end of the day,” Africk said.
It’s not clear why Gusman decided to hire a second law firm, though the sheriff has faced a torrent of litigation prompted by OPP’s violent conditions, even apart from the consent decree proceedings.
Spokespeople for Gusman and Landrieu did not respond to questions Wednesday about how much the Sheriff’s Office and city are paying the attorneys.
The hearing also revealed that the new jail Gusman had hoped to open next month will not open before mid-February at the earliest, due to several delays. The Sheriff’s Office is not ready to move into the $145 million facility, and the policies and procedures that deputies will need to follow in operating the new lockup aren’t yet complete, said Susan McCampbell, a corrections expert appointed by Africk to oversee the implementation of the consent decree.
McCampbell testified she wouldn’t be surprised if the jail’s opening is pushed back even further than February. The memo filed by Williams attributed the new timetable to construction delays, and it noted that the Sheriff’s Office on Dec. 30 will begin charging the contractor a penalty of $15,000 for every day the jail isn’t inhabitable.
McCampbell said the delays weren’t all that surprising, particularly given the late start the Sheriff’s Office got in preparing its transition team.
“The public and taxpayers don’t like to hear this, but sometimes it’s important to delay the opening of (a new) jail until it’s ready to run,” McCampbell said. “There’s no option of doing it halfway.”
There was little mention Wednesday of the abrupt departure this month of Michael A. Tidwell, Gusman’s former chief corrections deputy, who left the Sheriff’s Office for a corrections job in Pensacola, Florida, amid souring relations with the sheriff.
Tidwell, in his letter of resignation, said leaving his position would afford the sheriff “the opportunity to hire someone more in tune with your management style and agency vision.” Tidwell’s departure was widely seen as a setback among inmate advocates, who had praised him for his efforts to improve the jail’s operations.
McCampbell said Gusman has assured her he would not begin moving inmates into the new jail until he has hired Tidwell’s replacement to run the new facility — a promise that could delay the jail’s opening indefinitely.
“Hardly any jail ever opens on time,” she said. “There should not be any urgency in taking over this building until it’s absolutely correct, or it’s just going to be more expensive in the long run.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.