By Joseph Cranney | NOLA.com | May 12, 2023
A controversial Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office employee whom Sheriff Susan Hutson said she was dismissing in March has still not been let go, and it’s not clear when she might be on her way out.
Instead, Kristen Morales is working remotely, doesn’t submit timesheets and has retained her $155,000 salary and full benefit package, though Hutson has stripped many of her obligations.
Morales is the office’s third-highest paid employee, behind Hutson and Chief of Staff John Williams. She makes more than all but 24 of the 4,400 employees that work for City Hall, records show. Hutson makes a little more than $205,000.
OPSO deputies start at $39,000 a year, and Hutson has pushed for months to receive more funding to increase deputy pay and benefits. So far, those efforts have failed spectacularly.
Two weeks ago, Hutson’s proposal to nearly double a tax her office collects was defeated by voters by what longtime observers believed was the largest margin, pro or con, in a New Orleans election, with 91% opposed. The City Council also declined her request for $13 million in new funding in the fall.
Morales — who previously oversaw investigations and information technology — was one of four top deputies that Hutson said she was forcing out after revelations that the office spent around $18,000 to house more than a dozen deputies, including Morales, at downtown hotels during Carnival.
Hutson denied that was the reason she cleaned house, though she was facing mounting pressure over that and other controversies that arose during her first year on the job.
Morales, whom Hutson has described as a personal friend, agreed to resign in lieu of a termination and stay on for a 30-day transition period, Hutson said. That was 49 days ago, and now there’s no timetable for Morales’ last day, she added.
Morales is no longer in charge of investigations, Hutson said, and a spokesperson said no employees report to Morales in her slimmer role.
The transition has taken longer than expected because Morales is the only one qualified for the IT work she handles, Hutson said. “The goal was for 30 days,” she said. “We’ve had more to figure out.”
Morales referred questions to Huston spokesperson Casey McGee, who said Morales is an “active employee in an interim position,” which allows her to keep her pay and benefits.
Morales is spearheading the construction of a new OPSO website, McGee said, adding that the employee who was handling that project died earlier this year.
Less work, same pay
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, questioned why Hutson is paying Morales the same amount of money if she’s doing less work.
“The sheriff has already placed a value on Morales’ work when she was assistant sheriff in charge of IT and investigations,” Goyeneche said, adding that the state constitution prohibits public officials from giving away public money or assets. “Now she’s no longer in charge of IT. She’s no longer in charge of investigations. She’s not allowed in the building. And she’s paid the same amount of money?”
Hutson said Morales is the only employee equipped to handle OPSO’s myriad IT problems. That includes needed software, security firewall and server upgrades. Morales’ position has been publicly posted and OPSO is still accepting applicants, Hutson said.
The Sheriff’s Office has also solicited proposals for new digital jail and case management systems. The office received eight submissions, and officials will hear presentations from those bidders next week, Hutson said.
Morales was the subject of previous controversy at OPSO and in her former investigator job with the Office of Inspector General of New Orleans.
Morales was fired from that position, where she was paid a $96,000 salary, after an investigation found she wasn’t forthright when questioned about giving away an office cell phone. Hutson brought Morales on while she appealed her firing, putting her in charge of investigations even though it was her credibility issues that caused Morales to lose her OIG job.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal sided with the OIG and upheld her firing.
In January, Morales was accused in a complaint by former OPSO chief financial officer David Trautenberg of throwing an unopened water bottle at Trautenberg’s head during an in-office training, WWL-TV reported.
Two weeks before Hutson dismissed Morales, Trautenberg, former assistant sheriff Pearlina Thomas and former legal counsel Graham Bosworth, Hutson lashed out at her top staff in a March 10 meeting, according to a recording obtained by WWL-TV.
“I can’t deal with this destructive behavior anymore,” Hutson told them. “Just do your job. If you can’t learn to love each other, then don’t. But be cordial, professional, speak to each other at all times…If you can’t do that, I’m going to walk you out of this office. Sooner rather than later.”
Morales is the only one of the four still working there.