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Jun 21, 4:20 PM EDT

Orleans sheriff cedes power to appointee in jail compromise



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NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The sheriff elected to run the long-troubled New Orleans jail agreed Tuesday to cede management of the lockup to an outsider, heading off the possibility that a federal judge would strip him of his chief duty amid continued reports of violence among inmates.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman will hire the new jail "compliance director" under an agreement announced in court. But the new hire "will be answerable only to the court," under the deal. And he or she will be nominated jointly by some of Gusman's harshest critics - the U.S. Justice Department, lawyers for inmates and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration. All three groups had urged U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to appoint an outsider to run the jail.

"The measures agreed to by the parties are not measures that the court relishes imposing, as this course of action essentially involves the democratically elected sheriff of Orleans Parish relinquishing operational control and final authority for jail operations to the federal judicial branch," Africk said as he announced his approval of the deal.

At a news conference immediately following the announcement, Gusman appeared to describe the compromise as a victory, saying the agreement would address his longstanding complaints about pay increases and budget issues.

In April, lawyers for the Justice Department and the inmate advocates formally asked Africk to place the jail in "federal receivership" and appoint a third party to run the lockup. They cited Gusman's slow progress in implementing reforms required in a 2012 lawsuit settlement, approved by Africk in 2013.

Gusman once likened the move to an illegal coup and said it would thwart the will of voters.

"This is an agreement that resolves some longstanding issues," Gusman said Tuesday morning when asked whether the compromise was simply "receivership" by another name.

The sheriff has long blamed the jail's troubles on a lack of funding from the city, but Landrieu says the city has increased jail funding to no apparent benefit.

"The Jail Compliance Director will not only be responsible for bringing the jail into compliance with the consent decree, but will also run the budget so we have better oversight over your tax dollars," Landrieu said in an emailed news release.

Hearings on the motion to have the jail placed in receivership began late last month with testimony from a court-appointed monitor and others who described jail violence and conditions that contributed to a March suicide.

Gusman was expected to testify, but hearings were repeatedly postponed since early June.

Inmates had been moved from the old, decaying jail into a new building last September, something the sheriff touted as a factor in improving conditions. But monitors say violence endangering inmates and staffers continues.

Gusman expressed optimism that the new director will help resolve funding issues, including the need for pay raises for deputies.

Katie Schwartzmann, attorney for the inmates, stressed in a news release that the new director will have the final authority to hire, fire and reassign staff, with authority "to make whatever decisions are necessary to move the jail toward compliance with the Consent Decree."

"This change in leadership and the addition of correctional management experience is critical to speeding reform at the jail. We are hopeful that the Sheriff will likewise support the changes necessary to create significant and lasting reform at the Orleans Parish jail," said the news release from Schwartzmann, co-director of the New Orleans office of the MacArthur Justice Center.

The compromise in federal court came the same day that the U.S. attorney's office in New Orleans announced that a former jail administrator was charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

The charge against former Orleans Parish Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin was contained in a bill of information released Tuesday morning. It arises from his connection to a private security business that sometimes hired off-duty deputies for security details. Ursin resigned in April. Court documents did not contain information on his attorney.

Another former Sheriff's Office official, Roy Austin, pleaded guilty in May in the case, which involved Austin's security company charging for security personnel who did not actually work security details. Prosecutors said Austin sometimes drafted checks payable to members of Ursin's family for detail work that never happened. Ursin is charged with having those family members endorse the checks.

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Associated Press reporter Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.

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