A controversy involving state benefits earned by deputies at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office spilled into court this week, as Sheriff Marlin Gusman filed a lawsuit accusing the state treasury of wrongfully withholding supplemental pay from some three dozen of his employees.
The lawsuit, filed in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, came on the heels of a legislative audit that alleged the Sheriff’s Office has wrongly collected more than $1 million from the state for deputies who are not eligible to receive supplemental pay because they do not regularly interact with inmates.
Gusman challenged the findings of the Legislative Auditor’s Office and, speaking to an activist group this week, complained that the agency “frankly has been digging around for the last two-and-a-half years trying to find something” untoward within the Sheriff’s Office.
“I disagree with the legislative auditor’s interpretation” of the law, the sheriff said Tuesday during his “State of the Sheriff’s Office” address. “We’re going to let the courts decide.”
The lawsuit, known as a “petition for mandamus,” alleges the state treasury, for the past two months, has shortchanged 38 deputies entitled to receive $500 per month to supplement their Sheriff’s Office salaries. Withholding that money, the lawsuit says, amounts to “an extreme hardship, given the large portion of their compensation which consists of state supplemental pay.”
The investigative audit, forwarded to state and federal prosecutors, identified 56 employees who received $1,026,083 in supplemental pay over a four-year period even though they had been assigned to largely clerical or administrative roles at the Sheriff’s Office.
Under state law, commissioned deputies are eligible to take home an additional $500 a month from the state, so long as they have a year of service and weren’t “hired primarily to perform purely clerical or non-enforcement duties.”
The legislative auditors found that the deputies in question do not interact regularly enough with inmates to claim they carry out law enforcement duties.
Gusman, however, contends the auditors misinterpreted the statute and that Louisiana law does not make clear which deputies are disqualified from receiving the monthly benefits. His lawsuit alleges that some $38,000 in supplemental pay has been wrongfully withheld from his deputies since February.
“Only the state supplemental pay board has the authority to issue determinations regarding the appropriateness of an employee receiving state supplemental pay, and, as a matter of fact, those regulations are liberally construed in favor of the deputy receiving the supplemental pay,” Gusman said.
In a February letter to the legislative auditor, the first assistant state treasurer, Ron Henson, said the treasury and the Deputy Sheriffs’ Supplemental Pay Board of Review “concur with the findings in the (legislative) audit report.” Henson added that the treasury would work “to change the application process and reporting requirements to reduce the possibility of payments to employees who are not entitled to them.”
State Treasurer John Kennedy said that while he appreciates the “difficult job” deputies do for minimal pay, he cannot violate state law. “We cannot pay those employees unless a judge tells us otherwise,” Kennedy added in a statement. “It is my hope that the court will act swiftly to resolve this matter.”
The legislative audit was initiated by a complaint filed by Bryan Collins, a former deputy who became a whistleblower and resigned from the Sheriff’s Office in 2013.
The audit also delved into a scandal involving off-duty deputy details; that inquiry has prompted federal wire fraud charges against a former Sheriff’s Office colonel.
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