Sheriff Marlin Gusman to take the stand this week at high-stakes hearing over control of local jail _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Sheriff Marlin Gusman speaks about the state of the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office and the OPSO Jail at Beacon Light International Baptist Cathedral in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, April 5, 2016.

Maybe we should call Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman Sheriff Pangloss, for there never was a lawman so determined to look on the bright side.

He’s at it again following the resignation of his chief deputy, Jerry Ursin. This might have led some public officials to a period of introspection, but if Gusman suffered any self-doubt, he hid it well. Gusman expressed no regret, as yet another of his top hires faced the prospect of criminal charges, but he welcomed the opportunity to restructure his administration “in a positive way.”

Gusman did not say a restructuring is long overdue, but he’s made such a hash of his primary responsibility, running the New Orleans jail, that everyone else must have been thinking it.

Ursin resigned after a legislative auditor’s report found that he and Roy Austin, then a Sheriff’s Office colonel, were neglecting their official duties to run a company that hired out off-duty deputies for private security details.

This kind of work is always lucrative for the middlemen, but profits were especially healthy in this case, the auditor found, because Mardi Gras krewes and concert organizers, for instance, paid for the services of moonlighting deputies that were entirely imaginary.

Austin has been charged in a bill of information, a sure sign that he plans to cop a plea and sing. Defendants who want to put up a fight get indicted.

Ursin and Austin had the assistance of two other Sheriff’s Office employees in the detail scam, which was managed on public computers, but Gusman, as usual, said he hadn’t the slightest idea about what had been going on in his own office.

You’d think by now he would have been less trusting of his underlings. His chief purchasing director officer, John Sens, was sentenced in 2013 to five years for rigging bids and taking kickbacks. Sheriff’s Office Col. Gerard Hoffman, who was seriously ill by the time he came up for sentencing on similar charges, was put on probation by a sympathetic judge.

Sens also was implicated by the legislative auditor for hiring an unlicensed contractor to repair showers at the old House of Detention, using materials inferior to what was specified in the request for bids. All the invoices were approved by Ursin.

The House of Detention was shuttered soon after that scam, but Gusman still can’t get jailhouse showers right. Stalls in his new building were installed with locks on the inside, making it much easier for an inmate to hang himself last month.

In a jail setting, managerial ineptitude is more likely to have fatal consequences, and federal monitors evidently despair that Gusman will ever meet his obligations under a consent decree issued to settle a lawsuit filed over unconstitutional conditions. Violence, the monitors tell Judge Lance Africk, remains at an “absolutely unacceptable level,” and staff “are not in control.” Gusman always claimed a new jailhouse would correct any shortcomings, but now that he has one, he is even further away from complying with the decree, according to the monitors.

But there was Gusman, a day after Ursin’s resignation, giving a speech in which he pronounced the jail “well-managed” and the scene of much, albeit unheralded, progress.

It is true that since the House of Detention closed, inmates do not appear to have videotaped one another doing drugs, drinking beer and brandishing guns. They also evidently have stopped walking out to take evening strolls along Bourbon Street, so maybe Gusman’s slammer does not rate the rave customer reviews of yore.

Still, Gusman is alone in his view that he has been a competent steward and that only Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s refusal to provide enough dough stops him from becoming the beau ideal of the penology business.

It is indeed an absurd setup that gives one elected official the say-so over another’s budget. If the mayor is to control the jail budget, he should appoint the jailer. If the sheriff is in charge, he needs to be entirely his own man. Landrieu, who clearly believes that Gusman, after 12 years in office, will never learn how to run a jail, will stiff him every time.

Jail conditions are so dire that a solution must be found as soon as possible. Presumably, that will mean putting the jail in receivership and finding someone competent to take charge. If Africk then decides that more money is required to fix the jail, Landrieu will have no choice but to cough up.

That will leave Gusman with not much to do, but then the rest of us will be able to look on the bright side.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.