Official: Sheriff to blame for NOLA jail problems
NEW ORLEANS — Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his chief administrator turned up the political heat on Sheriff Marlin Gusman on Wednesday, the day after a federal court released videos that showed inmates at the New Orleans jail using drugs and brandishing a handgun in a cell.
Another video that was among those released a day ago showed a man wandering the French Quarter, claiming he was supposed to be locked up at the time.
“The sheriff simply can’t manage that jail regardless of the amount of money,” Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin testified Wednesday morning as hearings continued on whether the court should approve a proposed agreement between Gusman and the Department of Justice to improve jail conditions.
Kopplin said state law tasks the city with funding the jail, but the sheriff with running it. He reiterated Landrieu’s call for federal authorities to put the jail under federal receivership and place someone other than Gusman in charge of it.
“I think it denotes the conditions at the time were just really dangerous and unacceptable,” Landrieu said later at a news conference. “The issue really then gets to be about management and not about money, so I’m appalled like everybody else.”
Gusman had been expected to testify at the hearing as early as Wednesday but his appearance on the stand was later set for this morning. He is expected to talk with reporters sometime after testifying. He has said little about the video other than to note that it was made at a jail building that is now closed, and to emphasize that it is owned by the city.
Gusman has not identified the identities of the inmates. However, WDSU television showed archival footage of the same man, identified as Arthur Johnson, 32 at the time, after he was arrested following a summer 2009 escape.
The city objects to the potential cost of the jail agreement, known as a consent decree. Officials say it could jeopardize funding of police and other vital municipal services in a city where Landrieu and the City Council have already made large cuts, along with tax and fee increases.
City officials say they were largely left out of negotiations over the jail consent decree.
Kopplin was questioned by Justice Department attorney Laura Coon, who pointed to correspondence between federal and city officials as evidence that the city was involved. Kopplin said he doubted city lawyers would characterize the interaction as “negotiation,” contrasting it with exhaustive meetings the city had with federal attorneys over a separate agreement to reform the police department.
Still, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, presiding over the case, pointedly said that the city was involved in discussions. “Those negotiations took place,” he said at one point.
“The judge is wrong about that,” Landrieu said later at a news conference. “The city of new Orleans was aware that the sheriff was negotiating with DOJ. DOJ asked us to come in because they said, ‘You’re responsible for paying for it.’ We’ve always said we’re not responsible for paying for it. If you want us to monitor your negotiations, we can do that, but if you want to start talking to us about paying what you two have agreed to, we’re not willing to do that because we don’t think we’re ultimately responsible for that.”
Three videos were allowed into evidence by Africk at the behest of lawyers for the city. Officials said they only recently learned that Gusman’s office had the video, which appears to have been made by an inmate and is believed to have been recorded in 2009.
One shows inmates smoking, swallowing, snorting and injecting what are believed to be drugs. Cash changes hands during a jail cell dice game. Some inmates drink from cans of beer. Cell phones are visible.
One inmate ejects bullets from a large handgun.
Another video shows a man strolling up and down Bourbon Street, peering into strip joints, occasionally chatting with passing police on patrol and at one point looking at the recorder and saying: “Y’all know I’m supposed to be in jail right now.”
By KEVIN McGILL