A top-ranking official with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office who coordinated off-duty deputy details was charged in federal court Friday with billing several local businesses for the work of “ghost employees” at events and keeping the proceeds for himself.
Roy Austin, 69, of St. Tammany Parish, a former warden who retired recently from his post, faces one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in a case that brings new attention to Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s controversial details program — an often-lucrative sideline for deputies seeking to supplement their regular wages.
The prosecution appears to be related to an investigative audit being done by the Legislative Auditor’s Office.
The scheme, which began in 2009 and involved some $83,000 in “fraudulently inflated charges,” targeted several unnamed Mardi Gras krewes, music festivals and sporting events that required large security forces, according to a bill of information filed Friday.
When a defendant in federal court is charged in a bill of information, it is usually a sign that he has signed a plea agreement and is cooperating with the government.
Federal prosecutors are accusing Austin of filing bogus invoices through interstate wires and pocketing a portion of the overbillings paid to his private company, Austin Sales and Service. That company coordinated security details for local events, staffing them with off-duty sheriff’s deputies and New Orleans police officers, prosecutors said.
The documents say Austin “regularly directed funds from that overbilled surplus for his own personal use by drafting checks to members of his family under the fraudulent guise of payments for detail work that in fact did not take place.”
Austin faces up to five years behind bars if convicted.
His defense attorney, Robert Habans, declined to comment on the case.
The bill of information strongly suggests more charges are in the offing. It describes the involvement of an unnamed Sheriff’s Office official, referred to as “Employee A,” who was compensated “for allowing Austin to run the day-to-day operation of the scheme” and who apparently still works for the Sheriff’s Office. Austin is accused of drafting checks made payable to that employee’s family members for detail work that never took place.
“Austin and OPSO Employee ‘A’ then either fraudulently endorsed those checks or, in some instances, had their respective family members endorse the checks for subsequent deposit,” the bill of information states.
A Sheriff’s Office spokesman declined comment on the identity of Employee A.
Reached on his cellphone Friday, Gusman said: “Why are you calling me? I have nothing to say about that.”
His office later released a statement saying the Sheriff’s Office “has cooperated with each step of the investigation involving Roy Austin. Austin left the OPSO last year. The activities announced today are independent of OPSO business and related to a private business that Austin allegedly created.”
The new charge, however, comes amid mounting scrutiny of the Sheriff’s Office’s details program — attention that has been heightened due to a shortage of deputies to staff the city’s new $150 million jail, the Orleans Justice Center.
A corrections expert monitoring conditions at the jail recently requested copies of the Sheriff’s Office’s details policies as well as documentation of all details that deputies worked between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15.
“A barrier to assessing the adequacy of (Sheriff’s Office) staffing is the matter of off-duty details and the extent to which employees are missing work assignments and/or are unavailable for overtime while working these details,” the expert, Susan McCampbell, wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to the sheriff.
The charge against Austin recalls the complaints of corruption that long dogged the New Orleans Police Department’s off-duty detail system, famously labeled as the NOPD’s “aorta of corruption” in a scathing 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. That report described an “entrenched and unregulated” system in which NOPD officers negotiated jobs on their own or coordinated private details for themselves and other cops, sometimes doling out the work to their on-duty superiors.
That created havoc in the chain of command, the report found. It also noted instances of “ghosting,” in which NOPD officers showed up for official roll call, then left for their private detail assignments while still on the clock.
“There are few aspects of NOPD more broadly troubling than its paid detail system,” the Department of Justice report found. “There is evidence that some officers are more committed to their details than their work for NOPD.”
Reforms came in 2011 following a controversy involving former NOPD 8th District Commander Edwin Hosli and a company he ran that paid NOPD officers to review red-light camera tickets. Hosli was cleared of wrongdoing. He has since left the NOPD and now works for the Sheriff’s Office.
Under a federal consent decree governing the NOPD, most police details now are managed through a special office inside City Hall, with set rates of pay. Amid grumbling by many officers and uncertainty among customers, the number of NOPD details dipped sharply during the transition, and many of those jobs were scooped up by sheriff’s deputies.
Some police advocates and city officials have griped that the Sheriff’s Office can undercut the published NOPD rates. They have argued that the deputies should be forced to abide by the same restrictions as NOPD officers for working details, but that hasn’t happened.
Just how much detail business flows through the Sheriff’s Office now is not clear. According to city figures, the NOPD detail program by last summer had recouped more than two-thirds of the business that disappeared as the reforms took hold.
Staff writer John Simerman contributed to this report.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.