Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman plans to take the witness stand next week during a high-stakes federal court hearing that will determine whether he retains control of the city’s jail.
Gusman has typically relied on his attorneys and top-ranking deputies to defend his record, shying away from the media and, until recently, skipping critical court proceedings involving the Orleans Justice Center.
But with his leadership on trial, the sheriff may have little choice but to testify if he hopes to dissuade U.S. District Judge Lance Africk from appointing an outside administrator to take over running the jail.
At the same time, Gusman will be exposed to potentially grueling cross-examination by attorneys for the city, the U.S. Justice Department and the inmates who filed suit four years ago over conditions inside the lockup.
Sheriff’s Office attorneys filed court papers Wednesday listing Gusman among 14 witnesses they intend to call when an evidentiary hearing resumes next week.
At issue is whether the sheriff is capable of carrying out a series of reforms he agreed to more than three years ago, spelled out in a federal consent decree.
Corrections experts last week testified that the city’s new $150 million jail has descended into chaos and that the Sheriff’s Office was woefully unprepared to move into the facility when it opened in September.
Violence and a shortage of staff recently prompted Gusman to relocate hundreds of inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana, several hours away from their families and defense attorneys.
The sheriff plans to call his own corrections expert, Donald Leach, but the witness list suggests he will base most of his defense on funding issues and his contention that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has failed to provide adequate resources for the jail.
Among the scheduled witnesses are Sean Bruno, a local accountant serving as the sheriff’s interim chief financial officer, and Seandra Buchanan, the director of human resources for the Sheriff’s Office.
Gusman has complained for months that he cannot recruit enough deputies to staff the jail until City Hall approves pay raises for the guards.
The sheriff’s lawyers wanted to call Landrieu to the stand but, based on a magistrate’s ruling, they likely will have to settle for Andy Kopplin, the mayor’s top deputy and chief administrative officer.
The sheriff has accused the city of shortchanging his agency for years, while the Landrieu administration has questioned Gusman’s ability to live within a budget and spend the money he gets wisely. Against this backdrop, Kopplin’s testimony could be among the most contentious of the hearing.
Before the Sheriff’s Office presents its case, however, attorneys for the Justice Department and the MacArthur Justice Center, a civil rights law firm representing local inmates, will call a final witness, Margo Frasier, whose testimony could last most of Monday.
Frasier, a former sheriff of Austin, Texas, who is monitoring correctional practices in New Orleans as part of the consent decree, blasted the Sheriff’s Office earlier this year for underreporting jailhouse violence.
“I have significant concerns regarding interference or downright stopping of investigations,” she said at the time.
Two of the sheriff’s witnesses, Michael Moore and Carmen DeSadier, the sheriff’s chief of corrections, likely will be quizzed about their decisions to quit and then quickly return to the Sheriff’s Office earlier this year.
Moore wrote a scathing resignation letter in which he complained that internal disputes at the Sheriff’s Office were “interfering with the primary mission of providing a safe and secure environment for the inmates and staff.”
“It is also abundantly clear that there are individuals who lack the knowledge of corrections operations but who are making decisions for personal reasons that impede the forward progress of this agency,” Moore added.
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