The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office ran afoul of public bid law four years ago in its renovations of the now-shuttered House of Detention, failing to publicly advertise the project and using an unlicensed contractor without a contract, according to a investigative audit released Monday by the state Legislative Auditor’s Office.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman admitted the job had not been handled by the book but put the blame on his former purchasing director, John Sens, who was sentenced in 2013 to five years in federal prison for orchestrating a bid-rigging kickback scheme. The charges against Sens did not involve the repair work cited in the audit.
State auditors discovered a host of irregularities surrounding the waterproofing of inmate shower facilities at the House of Detention, a notoriously dilapidated building Gusman closed four years ago amid a federal inquiry into the city’s jail.
The work was organized at the 11th hour, just before a scheduled federal inspection of the House of Detention as part of the probe into whether conditions at the lockup were constitutional.
The audit — which largely mirrored the findings of a 2013 New Orleans Advocate article — found that the Sheriff’s Office paid nearly $232,000 to a company called Gulf State LLC to perform the last-minute work cleaning up 18 shower stalls in the building. That company’s principal was Kendall Marquar, a Mississippi businessman who had been close to Billy Short, Gusman’s former chief deputy. Short died in 2011 while in the crosshairs of a federal investigation.
The Sheriff’s Office issued a solicitation in 2010 for the waterproofing project and received three responses, including one from Gulf State, but none of the bids provided “a complete price for the full job, and only one proposal provided the cost for the waterproofing materials,” according to the audit.
Gulf State wasn’t incorporated until 2012. In addition, the auditors discovered that the materials used by Gulf State in the renovations failed to meet the requirements of the Sheriff’s Office’s solicitation.
Marquar, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to tax evasion charges and assisted federal authorities in their investigation of Sens, told auditors that Sens called him in 2012 and told him that federal inspectors planned to visit the House of Detention “and that (the Sheriff’s Office) needed to renovate the showers.”
“Mr. Marquar stated that Mr. Sens instructed him not to use the materials specified in the 2010 bid specifications; rather, they were to use a different sealer and begin renovations on the showers immediately,” the legislative audit states. “Mr. Marquar also stated that he never saw a contract between Gulf State LLC” and the Sheriff’s Office.
The audit does not mention the fact that, shortly after spending nearly $250,000 on renovations, Gusman closed the House of Detention amid mounting scrutiny of the city’s jail facilities. The House of Detention had been the site of videos that showed inmates drinking beer, using drugs and even handling a weapon — indelible images that brought national attention to New Orleans’ crumbling jail.
The audit also does not mention that several of the invoices submitted by Gulf State were approved by Gerald “Jerry” Ursin, who resigned Monday as Gusman’s chief deputy. Ursin is under federal investigation and is expected to be charged soon with overbilling businesses who hired off-duty deputies to provide security details.
Gusman, in a written response to the audit, acknowledged that the bids “were not suitably vetted” and that Gulf State had not been properly licensed.
“The chief procurement officer, who was responsible for vetting the bidders for that contract, was terminated and is no longer affiliated with the OPSO,” Gusman said, referring to Sens.
The Sheriff’s Office, he added, “now requires that a copy of each bidder’s license be submitted with the bid package so that this problem will not be repeated.”
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