Steven Odom

Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office Deputy Steven Odom (image from Facebook)

In the latest setbacks for a jail struggling to hire enough deputies to guard its inmates, the human resources director at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is out of a job and a background check investigator is under criminal investigation on allegations that he extracted sexual favors from job recruits.

The background investigator, suspended Deputy Steven Odom, was placed back in a role where he wielded power over female job seekers last year despite an accusation from a colleague that he was sexually harassing her and recruits.

The Sheriff’s Office has denied allegations from current and former employees that it has fostered a culture of harassment, as detailed in a joint investigation by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV last year.

But the allegations against Odom raise new questions about whether officials have done enough to stamp out workplace misconduct.

In a statement Thursday, the Sheriff's Office said it could not comment in detail on the allegations against Odom because he is an active employee who faces an administrative hearing.

“That said, the Sheriff’s Office takes every allegation of sexual harassment seriously," the agency said in a statement. "Allegations of harassment of any kind are investigated and, if substantiated, appropriate action is taken, up to and including termination. In the interim, other appropriate action is taken, such as removal of the alleged offender from the hostile environment."

Meanwhile, the departure of the human resources director, Trina Bowie, on March 22 is another troubling development for an agency that hemorrhaged employees last year. Bowie left less than a year after the last human resources director was fired. The Sheriff's Office has not said why Bowie left the agency.

The Sheriff’s Office did not make available for an interview either Sheriff Marlin Gusman or jail director Darnley Hodge Sr., who oversees day-to-day operations at the lock-up under the terms of a court order.

Odom's attorney, Stavros Panagoulopoulos, called the claims against his client "baseless."

According to an affidavit for a search warrant, Sheriff’s Office agents are looking into whether Odom gave the green light to unqualified job applicants — at least one with a criminal background — in exchange for sexual favors.

On one occasion he is suspected of signing off on the background check for an applicant who had at least four prior arrests. Investigators believe he told several colleagues that he was having sex with the woman.

Odom is also suspected of showing a colleague a cellphone video that he claimed showed him and the job candidate having sex.

Odom showed a colleague other video recordings of sexual acts with women who he said were applying for jobs at the Sheriff’s Office, agents wrote in the affidavit.

A team of investigators led by Sheriff's Office Sgt. Lance Wade obtained Odom’s cellphone from him at the jail last month. Separately, Sheriff's Office agent Daniel DeNoux obtained a warrant to search several electronic devices seized from his home in Metairie. The devices included three laptops, two Apple iPhones, an Apple iPad, an Apple Watch and a digital camera, said an affidavit accompanying the warrant. 

It’s not clear whether they found evidence backing up the claims they were investigating.

Odom was placed on suspension last month.

If substantiated, the allegations against Odom would likely violate the jail’s policy on sexual harassment. Investigators are also considering whether they would constitute official malfeasance, a crime that carries up to five years in prison and is defined as failing to carry out one's duties as a public servant lawfully.

The Sheriff's Office did not respond to a question about whether it will review the files for other recruits approved by Odom.

Panagoulopoulos said he does not know who accused his client. But he was adamant that Odom, a longtime deputy and armed forces veteran, committed no wrongdoing.

"Whether or not there was a relationship that was consensual between him and any of the other people that worked at the Sheriff's Office is a private matter between him and that person," the attorney said. "However, at no time was there ever any malfeasance, and at no time was there ever any action taken by Mr. Odom, either explicit or implicit, to convince them to have sex with him in exchange for getting a job at the Sheriff's Office."

The allegations against Odom are just the latest example of a deputy at the Sheriff’s Office being accused of similar misconduct.

During the Advocate-WWL-TV investigation last year, several current and former employees described a culture of sexual harassment where women were evaluated by their looks and treated as if they were “candy.” Two deputies have filed sexual harassment lawsuits since December.

Yet top officials have downplayed the issue.

Hodge said employees’ allegations were mere “gossip,” and Gusman outright denied that there was a sexual harassment problem at the jail.

However, investigative files obtained under a public records request raise questions about whether the Sheriff’s Office did enough to investigate a prior — and strikingly similar — complaint against Odom.

In February 2018, a deputy filed a complaint accusing Odom of asking her to be his “future wife” and playing obscene songs in the human resources office.

Odom also harassed prospective recruits, according to the deputy’s complaint.

He told one woman with a dark complexion, according to the complaint, “I love me a dark skin woman.”

He would also call applicants “baby” and make a suggestive comment while fingerprinting them, the complaint said.

“I know y’all women like to be in charge, but today I’m in charge,” he would tell the recruits, according to the complaint.

Odom admitted calling his colleague his “future wife” but claimed it was a “joke.”

In the end, a Sheriff's Office investigation faulted Odom only for a lack of professionalism. It also seemed to blame his colleague for not complaining to him about his behavior and waiting five days to lodge a formal complaint.

Panagoulopoulos said that earlier complaint was also "baseless."

Odom was placed on suspension on Feb. 22, 2018, the day after the woman filed her complaint. He was back to work a week later and still positioned to come into contact with dozens of women seeking jobs at the jail. In recent years, the Sheriff’s Office has hired a high percentage of female recruits to staff the lock-up in an effort to stem staggering turnover.

But while the hiring effort is considered a top priority under the jail’s 2013 reform agreement in federal court, reports from monitors of that pact show the recruitment push was a failure last year.

Over the course of 2018, in fact, the jail’s headcount went into free fall. The jail hired 126 new security and support staffers and parted ways with 201 in 2018, for a net loss of 75 employees, according to the federal monitors.

A full third of the employees who departed in 2018 had been hired that year, highlighting just how fast the revolving door spins.

Nineteen employees simply abandoned their jobs, another 16 departed due to “misconduct” and seven resigned under investigation, the monitors said.

Those monitors said that in a review of 20 shifts randomly surveyed between June and November 2018, not a single one had all posts filled. Entire jail tiers were secured only by “remote or rotating” deputies at times.

However, the Sheriff’s Office said in a recent court filing that it was making up for some of the losses. It claimed a net gain of 33 employees in the first two months of the year.

But whatever gains were made in January and February may be in danger as the Sheriff’s Office yet again searches for a human resources director.

Former HR chief Johnette Staes was fired in February 2018, around the same time that Hodge assumed his position.

She had faced legal peril — and lost her ability to work at the New Orleans Fair Grounds — for a series of bounced checks between 2008 and 2011. None of those incidents resulted in convictions.

Like Staes before her, Bowie was touted as the answer to the Sheriff’s Office’s hiring problems when she became HR director in May. She had previously overseen human resources for the Capital Area Transit System in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Yet Bowie was out of a job by this month, for unexplained reasons. It’s unclear whether her departure had anything to do with the investigation into Odom. She declined to comment.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.