“I think we’re doing pretty good without the consent decree.”
That was Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman's assessment of operations at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP).
Gusman took the witness stand today, and under cross-examination by former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg — who is on the city of New Orleans' legal team — he categorically denied the allegations of expert witnesses and inmates who appeared in U.S. District Court over the past three days, all arguing in favor of a proposed federal consent decree for OPP.
On Monday, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, an expert on prison operations expert Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, called OPP "likely the worst big city jail in the United States," and testified to finding evidence of widespread use of excessive force by deputies that often went uninvestigated.
Today, Gusman said that excessive force was rare, and “In every case where we could sustain a use of excessive force, we presented it to the District Attorney."
Gusman likewise denied reports of out-of-control violence and lack of adequate security from expert Manuel David Romero (whose testimony accompanied shocking video from inside the now-shuttered House of Detention), and testimony from Dr. Bruce Gage and Dr. Daphne Glindmeyer that the sheriff's office showed a reckless disregard for inmates' mental health.
Judging by Gusman's testimony, virtually every major point of the consent decree is unnecessary. Oddly, his office is here this week, in part, to argue for adoption of the agreement, which Gusman signed in December.
(More after the jump)
The question before Judge Lance Africk this week is whether conditions at the jail violate the United States Constitution, as the Southern Poverty Law Center (representing a proposed class of current and future inmates) and the U.S. Department of Justice has argued.
“Are you telling the court that conditions at Orleans Parish Prison, sometimes known as OPP, constitute violations of federal rights for the inmates there?” Rosenberg asked.
"I'm not admitting that," Gusman replied. He would allow that conditions were sometimes "not reasonable" due to inadequate staffing. But he said that the plaintiffs' 30 page findings of fact — the legal basis for adoption of the consent decree that Africk will rule on — was based on "lies and misrepresentations."
"What's the advantage to the sheriff's office of entering into the consent decree?" Africk asked.
“We certainly felt a lot of pressure. After the city had already entered into their consent decree with the police department. I also believed this would be a good opportunity to improve public confidence in what we’re doing," Gusman said. (Note "public confidence" in an agreement based on "lies and misrepresentations.) “I also believed that this would provide the funding we needed to do our job.”
That last point is where city government comes in. Costs of implementing the consent decree have been estimated to run into the tens of millions annually. That, plus the $55 million New Orleans Police Department consent decree, would result in massive layoffs or furloughs of city employees, Mayor Mitch Landrieu claims.
The city isn't opposed to federal intervention at the jail, though. Quite the opposite. The city wants a federal receiver appointed to take over operations at the jail, albeit one who would work under a narrower (read: less expensive) mandate than the consent decree.
The city also believes that a federal receiver would be able to rein in what it alleges to be irresponsible spending by the sheriff's office. New Orleans Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin gave one example this week: the $85 million FEMA-funded warehouse/kitchen/power plant now under construction at OPP. Kopplin said the facility — which can produce 25,000 meals per day for only 2,000-2,500 inmates — was far more than OPP needed. He said the sheriff should have used some of the FEMA-provided funding to build other facilities he's since said he needs, like a mental health ward.
Gusman responded today that FEMA funding could only go toward the large kitchen and warehouse facilities the jail lost to flooding after Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Floods. He said he would have rather repaired the old kitchen, but the agency decided it was too damaged.
“It goes back to FEMA replacing functional capacity subject to current codes and standards," Gusman said.
He admitted that, in theory, he would have been able to split the federal funds up, build a smaller kitchen and used the rest for other needs, but, he said, he would not have been able to secure additional funding should any of those projects gone beyond the $85 million overall budget.
"If your bids come in too high or your contractor goes above budget, you’re out of luck,” he said.
Gusman also testified that he was unaware of any allegations that millions of public dollars were misspent as a result of contract bid-rigging schemes orchestrated by two of his top former employees, John Sens and Gerard Hoffman. Sens and Hoffman both pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.
“That investigation concerning him ... is being conducted by the Department of Justice. I’m going to wait to see what they come up with. We were fully cooperting," Gusman said.
Gusman will finish his testimony this afternoon. That will be followed by closing arguments. Two more hearings on the sheriff's budget and funding for jail improvements are set for May 28 and July 1. Follow @the_gambitlive on Twitter for live coverage of today's testimony.