By Mike Perlstein l WWLTV I March 30, 2020
The commander and three veteran investigators of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office internal investigations unit abruptly resigned Friday amid an internal investigation into irregularities involving their work hours and time spent away from the office, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.
The resignations happened as the New Orleans jail grapples with a manpower shortage caused by the novel coronavirus, which has already sidelined 11 Sheriff’s Office employees with positive test results and scared others away from reporting for duty.
Maj. Edwin Hosli, head of the investigative unit, along with senior investigators Joe Catalanotto, Danny DeNoux and Kerri Lynch all “voluntarily resigned” on Friday, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman confirmed. Catalanotto held the rank of lieutenant.
The spokesman declined to elaborate on why the top echelon of an entire unit – which has garnered praise from the federal monitors overseeing the jail’s reform plan – was decimated in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
“As a matter of policy, the sheriff’s office doesn’t publicly discuss personnel matters,” said the spokesman, Philip Stelly.
In a follow-up statement Monday, the sheriff’s office wrote, ““The OPSO has received no subpoenas or warrants from any entity related to any of these former employees.”
Reached by phone for a brief interview on Friday, Hosli denied that there was anything unusual about his departure.
“It was just time for a change,” he said.
Catalanotto declined to comment, while DeNoux and Lynch couldn’t be reached. All four veteran law enforcement officers previously worked for the New Orleans Police Department.
The abrupt departures led to a swirl of intrigue inside and outside the sheriff’s office over the weekend, but officials have remained tight-lipped. Multiple independent sources said the resignations came after an internal inquiry into off-duty details had quietly been brewing for weeks inside the sheriff’s office.
“The matter is currently under investigation,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a criminal justice watchdog group. “We’ve seen partial disclosure with the fact that the sheriff’s office has confirmed a few resignations but we don’t know everything that the sheriff’s office has uncovered.”
With the sheriff’s office under a federal consent decree, the situation has been brought to the attention of federal authorities, the sources said.
The potential for administration violations would have been short-circuited due to the sudden resignations, while the possibility of criminal violations could be probed further despite the departures.
“There’s always going to be the potential for someone not following the rules,” Goyeneche said. But we don’t know the extent of this. We don’t know if any of these violations are going to emerge as possible criminal violations. We have more questions than we have answers at that this time.”
Off-duty details, where private businesses contract with law enforcement officers for protection, have long been a source of concern for anti-corruption crusaders.
When Justice Department investigators issued a damning report on the New Orleans Police Department in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they called the loosely regulated off-duty details an “aorta of corruption.”
Hosli, at the time the commander of the NOPD 8th District, including the French Quarter, was enmeshed in a controversy over his formation of a private company that had officers review red light camera tickets for a city vendor. He was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but slammed in an inspector general’s report, leading to an overhaul of NOPD’s detail policies.
In 2016, off-duty detail graft also claimed the second-in-command at the Sheriff’s Office. Gerald “Jerry” Ursin pleaded guilty to falsely charging Mardi Gras krewes, music festivals and other businesses for the work of “ghost” employees who never did any work.
Hosli and Catalanotto both left the NOPD as it was being transformed by the federal court decree inspired by the Justice Department report. A separate office in City Hall now handles off-duty details.
DeNoux is a well-traveled former New Orleans Police Department officer who moonlighted as a private eye at the same time he conducted investigations for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.
All three men worked in the Investigative Services Bureau-Criminal Division, which has earned praise from the court-appointed monitors who oversee the jail’s long-running reform pact with the federal government.
While the monitors have dinged other departments for high turnover and shoddy work, they portrayed the criminal investigators as experienced lawmen who conducted thorough investigations.