The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office, a state agency that conducts routine audits and also gathers evidence of fraud in government, is investigating the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office’s long-criticized off-duty details program, according to two sources with knowledge of the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Roger Harris, director of investigative audit and advisory services for the legislative auditor, confirmed Friday that the Sheriff’s Office is the subject of a probe by the office, but he declined to disclose whether the investigation is related to private details because the matter is ongoing.
Philip Stelly, a spokesman for Sheriff Marlin Gusman, said the legislative auditor has made several requests for information and the sheriff is cooperating fully with them. He would not comment on the nature of the inquiries or say what information had been requested.
The program is a lucrative sideline by which deputies can earn significantly more than the $9 to $12 hourly wage they typically earn at the Sheriff’s Office.
The sources said investigators have been gathering documents and electronic files related to the detail program. On Wednesday, computers were seized from two employees who help coordinate the details, they said.
They said, however, that scrutiny of the detail program is just part of a wider examination of the sheriff’s finances.
Stelly denied “a raid” had been carried out, and he said no subpoenas have been served within the past week. He declined to answer other questions about what documents had been taken or to provide details about how the detail program worked.
The legislative auditor doesn’t conduct criminal investigations. When it turns up evidence of criminal activity, it forwards the findings to law enforcement agencies such as the FBI or Internal Revenue Service.
Harris described the ongoing audit as “investigative.” Such audits “are designed to detect and deter the misappropriation of public assets and to reduce fraud risks,” according to the office’s website.
The sheriff’s detail program, which has come under fire before because of its lack of regulation, is characterized by former and current employees of the Sheriff’s Office as a freewheeling bazaar where enterprising deputies make extra cash by both working and coordinating private security shifts.
Shifts at businesses such as Walgreens serve as the bread and butter for the program, while construction sites and entertainment events, like Voodoo Fest, are also coveted security gigs. One former deputy said a security job at the construction site of the future Orleans Parish Prison pays about $50 per hour.
While the scope of the probe is unknown, investigators appear to be taking a close look at the coordination of the details, which is handled by employees of varying ranks.
Past media reports, including a 2011 investigation by The Lens, revealed the Sheriff’s Detail Fund collects $1 for each hour deputies work on private details. That fund had been used previously to purchase alcohol for parties and gifts for employees.
The Lens investigation also alleged some deputies were double-dipping by working private security gigs while they were on the clock for the Sheriff’s Office.
A former sheriff’s deputy who used to work details said coordinators are essentially freelancers who set up security deals with private contractors and take a significant cut. “There is no structure; there is no particular prerequisite training; there is no chain of command,” the deputy said.
That arrangement can lead to awkward situations in which top brass in the Sheriff’s Office are beholden to lower-ranking officials who are coordinating details, a situation that could jeopardize the chain of command.
In that respect and others, the sheriff’s detail program is similar to that of the heavily criticized system used by the New Orleans Police Department before it entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department two years ago. The NOPD’s program was described as “an aorta of corruption” in the department in a blistering 2011 report by the U.S. Justice Department.
Starting in August 2013, many police off-duty details have been routed through the Office of Police Secondary Employment, a newly created city office that has been criticized by both cops and some of the businesses that have long hired them for private security jobs.
It appears the Sheriff’s Office’s looser guidelines may have helped it cash in on business that the NOPD lost.
Andy Kopplin, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, estimated in a June interview that the NOPD had lost about half the detail work it once handled, and he figured some of that went to sheriff’s deputies.
Landrieu said during the same interview that it was difficult for the Police Department to compete for detail work when the Sheriff’s Office plays by a different set of rules.
“Why the same Department of Justice wants to redo the detail system for the police and not the Sheriff’s Office is strange to me,” he said, adding that the disparate treatment would likely result in “unfair competition.”
Landrieu said it was his understanding that the difference in the two consent decrees in regard to the regulation of private details resulted from certain language in the Prison Reform Litigation Act.
The consent decree entered into by the Sheriff’s Office is primarily focused on unconstitutional conditions and dysfunction in Orleans Parish Prison and doesn’t mention private security details. The NOPD’s consent decree is much broader in scope.
One of the elements in the Sheriff’s Office consent decree, however, is the dearth of qualified deputies at the prison, a shortage Landrieu said is likely exacerbated by the much-coveted security details.
“One of the reasons why you don’t have enough deputies is because they’re doing something else,” he said. “What are they doing? They are doing details, meaning they’re not in the jail.”
Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.