Carmen DeSadier, the veteran Chicago corrections officer hired last year to turn around New Orleans’ troubled jail, left the job amid a bitter power struggle within the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office — a standoff that pitted DeSadier against Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s right-hand man.
A resignation letter released Tuesday revealed new details about DeSadier’s abrupt departure last month and the factions that have formed within the Sheriff’s Office as it struggles to implement a federal consent decree intended to improve conditions at the newly opened Orleans Justice Center.
In a one-page letter to the sheriff, DeSadier described Gusman’s chief deputy, Jerry Ursin, as a divisive roadblock who interfered with her efforts to move the Sheriff’s Office forward.
She said Ursin, a former high-ranking New Orleans police officer, “participates in the belittling of staff to make himself appear superior and to feed his obsession to exercise authority over others.”
“His abrasive tactics, questionable practices and bullying of personnel who attempt to work with me has created an atmosphere of fear and disdain,” DeSadier wrote in her letter, dated Feb. 19. “This agency would be better served without his contemptuous influence.”
The sheriff said Tuesday that he values the contributions of both DeSadier and Ursin. “Interpersonal conflicts are a reality in the workplace and are not a true measure of someone’s professional ability,” Gusman said in a statement.
Ursin declined to comment on DeSadier’s charges.
DeSadier’s resignation letter, released in response to a public-records request, offered a window into the political infighting that has hampered the jail reforms ordered by a federal judge nearly three years ago.
Progress in implementing those reforms has stalled over the past six months, even regressing in some respects, according to a team of experts monitoring conditions at the jail.
DeSadier, like her similarly short-termed predecessor, Michael Tidwell, had been recruited from outside the Sheriff’s Office to right the ship. Staffing shortages and frequent violence inside the jail have continued even after the long-awaited opening last year of a new $150 million lockup.
DeSadier herself was accused by subordinates of ending criminal investigations prematurely in an effort to avoid negative publicity in contraband cases.
She suggested in her resignation letter that it was not she but rather members of the old guard who resisted change.
DeSadier devoted much of her missive to Ursin’s “contrary actions” and “exaggerated sense of self-importance.” But she also bemoaned the caustic “political climate” in which Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu have clashed on virtually every aspect of how to pay for the jail reforms and on how large the jail should be.
Landrieu’s administration is required by state law to foot the bill for the care of local inmates, but it has questioned Gusman’s ability to manage the jail. The sheriff, for his part, has attributed his staffing shortages and high turnover rate to the city’s refusal to approve pay raises for deputies.
“It has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve compliance with the (reforms) without an open and honest collaboration between the two governmental agencies,” DeSadier wrote, referring to the Sheriff’s Office and City Hall.
DeSadier declined to comment on her departure but, in a brief telephone interview, said she “agreed with everything” in a semiannual progress report released last week in which a team of court-appointed experts warned of a worsening “day-to-day crisis environment” at the new jail.
“My reason for leaving is pretty clear,” she said.
Michael L. Moore, who served as an assistant to DeSadier, also stepped down Feb. 19, writing in his resignation letter that “the internal fighting is interfering with the primary mission of providing a safe and secure environment for the inmates and staff.”
Moore had been tasked with overseeing the operations of the Sheriff’s Office kitchen, records and intake processing center, among other duties.
“It is also abundantly clear that there are individuals who lack the knowledge of corrections operations but who are making decision for personal reasons that impede the forward progress of this agency,” Moore added. “Operating a correctional facility with administrators who are determined to fulfill their personal agenda while ignoring the needs of the agency makes the task onerous.”
The experts monitoring the conditions at the jail expressed concern last week that the Sheriff’s Office has developed such a poor reputation nationally that it may have difficulty recruiting a new chief correctional deputy to fill DeSadier’s shoes.
But James Williams, an attorney for Gusman, said this week that the Sheriff’s Office “began receiving interest in that job almost immediately” upon DeSadier’s departure.
“That is a very top priority for the sheriff, but we don’t want to rush it,” Williams said. “We want to make sure we tap a qualified individual.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.