Last Modified: Thursday, April 04, 2013 6:18 PM
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman suggested Thursday that a lurid video depicting intravenous drug use and weapon possession in the jail he oversees may have been doctored.
Gusman made the assertion first during testimony at a federal court hearing on jail conditions and again during a news conference.
"It doesn't bear any resemblance, in my mind, to what I saw," Gusman said after attorney Harry Rosenberg asked him if he had any basis to believe the video had been doctored.
He later told reporters he doesn't remember seeing the explicit images on the recording when he first viewed it four years ago. "I saw it on a very small screen. It wasn't much," he said when asked how he could forget such a video.
Gusman's remarks came on the final day of a hearing on whether a jail improvement agreement between his office and the U.S. Justice Department should be approved.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu opposes the agreement, saying the jail is mismanaged by Gusman and that the agreement would force the city to spend millions on a badly run facility. The city wants federal authorities to appoint a receiver to take over responsibility for running the jail.
The Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents inmates who sued to improve conditions, are urging approval of the agreement, noting that funding issues will be sorted out during a hearing next month. They said testimony about sexual assaults, suicides, and beatings by guards and among prisoners is evidence of the need for the pact.
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said he hopes to rule in about a month.
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.
Rosenberg, representing the city, cast doubts on the idea that the video had been altered, noting that testimony indicates the video had been locked away in a Sheriff's Office safe for about four years.
He asked why Gusman never contacted state or federal authorities to investigate the videos, which also show an inmate apparently wandering Bourbon Street while he was supposed to be locked up. Gusman said his primary concern was to find whether any of his staff had been complicit in the activity. Although the inmate seen in the Bourbon Street video was captured and prosecuted for escaping, Gusman said no charges were filed over the drugs because the alleged contraband was not found in the cell during a subsequent search.
Prison consultant Jeffrey Schwartz, who testified after Gusman, was incredulous at the sheriff's answers.
"Most people would have remembered every moment of the video and would have turned heaven and earth to investigate it," Schwartz said.
Rosenberg as Gusman about numerous topics, including federal guilty pleas by two former jail officials on bribery charges.
Gusman defended the decision to use money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local funds to build a state-of-the-art kitchen for a new jail building under construction. Rosenberg noted that it could serve 25,000 meals a day for an inmate population of less than 2,500. Gusman said the decisions were made in 2008, when future inmate populations were difficult to determine in a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
The court hearing placed Gusman in the position of having to defend conditions at the troubled jail, as well as his decision to sign an agreement to improve conditions that the Justice Department says are unconstitutional.
Gusman said he signed the agreement to boost public confidence in the jail. He acknowledged problems there, particularly with the physical condition of the city-owned facilities and a low-paid staff that is too small. But when asked by Rosenberg whether the jail was providing a safe and secure environment even before the consent decree was signed, Gusman replied, "To the best of our ability that's what we've been doing."
Rosenberg walked Gusman through a series of allegations made in documents or by experts supporting the legal actions that led to the consent decree, including statements that the jail is "dysfunctional."
"Do you agree that either you are dysfunctional or the operations of the Orleans Parish Prison are dysfunctional?" Rosenberg asked.
"No," Gusman said, but he later added: "I think we're going to be a lot more functional when we get the new building."