There's an old saying that politics makes strange bedfellows, but it's equally true that hard times can drive a wedge between natural allies. The latter appears to be the case with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
Under normal circumstances, the mayor and the sheriff would get along just fine. These are not normal circumstances. Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is a hellhole, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has been rocked by scandals since Hurricane Katrina, and the feds want to put both institutions under expensive consent decrees to force change.
Add to that the intransigence of both men, and you get the kind of feud that has made headlines for the past few months. Landrieu and Gusman have squared off in federal court and in the court of public opinion. There's no clear winner yet, and the stakes are high.
Gusman claims his jail meets constitutional standards, yet he welcomes the OPP consent decree as a way to get more money from City Hall. Landrieu initially welcomed the NOPD consent decree — until he got the tab for the OPP decree. Now he wants out of both, saying they will bankrupt the city. The feds don't really care about cost; they just want the jail and NOPD fixed.
The situation is compounded by the jail's unusual — many say untenable — fiscal and managerial structure under state law and federal decree. The sheriff is responsible for running the jail, but City Hall is largely responsible for paying for it. The result, according to a recent audit report by the city's Office of Inspector General (OIG), is "a problematic relationship between the OPSO and the city."
That's putting it mildly.
"Since neither the city nor the sheriff's office could be held wholly accountable for both the costs and the conditions of the jail," the report concludes, "neither public entity ensured the safety, security, and efficiency of the jail."
The OIG report is damning for Gusman's office, almost as much as the sensational jailhouse videos that showed inmates partying, flashing a gun and allegedly doing drugs. Public support for the sheriff has to be at an all-time low, and Election Day is less than eight months away.
But U.S. District Judge Lance Africk rejected Landrieu's attempt to sidetrack the OPP consent decree. That was a victory for Gusman, though in approving the decree the judge excoriated the sheriff's office. Africk cited "systemic" problems at the jail, which he said created "a substantial risk of serious harm to which prison officials were deliberately indifferent." The judge added that federal intervention "will ensure that OPP inmates are treated in a manner that does not offend contemporary notions of human decency."
Concluding that the jail fails to meet constitutional standards was the easy part. Now comes the heavy lifting: unraveling Gusman's budget to see how much he really needs to implement the sweeping changes outlined in the consent decree. Africk had scheduled a hearing on that subject for last week, but he postponed it and asked Landrieu and Gusman to try to work out a compromise. It appears the judge is not anxious to split this baby.
Several attempts at mediation failed. Then came the OIG's report, which appears to support Landrieu's contention that the problems at OPP are more related to management than money. "The jail does not appear to be significantly underfunded given its total revenues," the OIG concluded.
The OIG and the mayor also have claimed that Gusman's books are deliberately unfathomable. Landrieu maintains that an honest examination would bear out the OIG's conclusion that Gusman already gets enough money to run the jail right. Gusman says the OIG doesn't know what it's talking about on the subject of jail finances.
Both Landrieu and Gusman seem willing to roll the dice on a financial standards ruling by Africk. As attorneys, both men know it's risky to litigate. Given the disparate possible outcomes — from no more money for the sheriff to millions drawn from city coffers over the next five to seven years — both men have much to lose, politically and financially, by digging in their heels.