By Mike Perlstein | WWL-TV | April 6, 2023


NEW ORLEANS — Long before controversy gripped the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office over the decision to get hotel rooms for 13 top deputies while they helped with Carnival security, acrimony had been brewing among the agency’s top executives.

In fact, according to multiple sources and a string of documents, turmoil was a constant presence deep inside the sheriff’s office almost from the time Sheriff Susan Hutson took office in May.

But it was on March 10, before the lodging controversy was made public and two weeks before Hutson overhauled her top staff by forcing four of them out of their jobs, the sheriff assembled her team and forcefully put them on notice.

“I feel so betrayed. Betrayed,” Hutson said to the group at the beginning of the late afternoon meeting. “And all the work that you do. The chaos that it’s caused. Talking about each other. Not speaking to each other. Not working together. Crazy text messages.”

Sheriff Hutson’s words of warning were captured on an audio recording of the meeting exclusively obtained by WWL-TV.

The bulk of the recording captures Hutson reading the riot act to four of her top executives: Legal counsel Graham Bosworth, Chief Financial Officer David Trautenberg, Assistant Sheriff for Governance Pearlina Thomas and Assistant Sheriff and head of internal affairs Kristen Morales.

Only weeks earlier, Hutson and her team were being praised as heroes for helping return Mardi Gras parades to their original routes. But when questions were raised about Hutson’s decision to pay for hotel rooms for 13 top deputies – some for 11 days and nights – the positive glow turned to questions.

By March 24, a full two weeks after the March 10 meeting, the lingering controversy caused heads to roll. Bosworth, Trautenberg and Thomas were fired. Morales chose to resign after a 30-day transition and is reportedly doing work from home.

The former members of Hutson’s inner circle can’t say the sheriff didn’t put them on notice.

“You all have amazing, amazing strengths, or you would not be here. But you also have weaknesses. And those weaknesses play out every day. And now they’re spilling out and ruining our Mardi Gras even,” Hutson told the group.

Internal strife inside the sheriff’s office surfaced shortly after Hutson was sworn in on May 2. WWL-TV obtained exclusive records that show within months of that changing-of-the-guard, things had deteriorated so much that Sheriff Hutson paid a consultant more than $15,000 for services such as “conflict coaching” and “mediation” for top administrators.

“This is a symptom of some profound issues, management issues, in the sheriff’s office that have been there since day one,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a non-profit law enforcement watchdog group.

Despite the mediation efforts, friction at the top not only continued, but apparently escalated.

In an internal incident report from Jan. 31 obtained by WWL-TV, Trautenberg wrote that Morales threw a bottle of water at him during a training session. He wrote that Morales was on a Zoom call for an unrelated matter when he asked her if she could re-locate to a smaller room.

Trautenberg wrote that after he asked Morales to move for a third time, “This final request was met with A.S. Morales throwing an unopened fully filled bottle of water at my head,” he wrote in the report.

A type-written account from a witness, Assistant Sheriff Astrid Birgden, confirmed the blow-up.

“I said to Kris her behavior was inappropriate,” Birgden wrote. “She responded that she was on the Zoom video call and that she did not throw the bottle at David but at the desk in front of him. I responded that it was not adult behavior and she could have muted the Zoom video call to respond to David’s requests.”

Hutson did not address the water bottle incident at the March 10 meeting, but she did say, “You are undermining me every day that you do this. Stabbing me in the back every day that you do this.”

A full picture of the in-fighting may never be known, but examples of the acrimony surfaced in emails from Trautenberg after he expressed his objection over the hotel rooms.

“If you are an OPSO employee you are not eligible to have a paid hotel room,” he wrote on Feb. 10, suggesting those top deputies just sleep at the office using mattresses from the sheriff’s warehouse.

Assistant Sheriff Laura Veazey responded with a blistering email, writing “this seems personal and it is frankly creeping me out. Your obsession with where I slept during Mardi Gras including offers to bring me a mattress while yelling expletives at me is bothersome and borders on harassment.”

We requested an interview with Sheriff Hutson to get a full account of the shakeup and everything that led to it, but she has not yet responded.

But her words of warning on March 10 are loud and clear: “I can’t deal with this destructive behavior anymore. 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.”

When March 24 rolled around, Hutson was true to her word. According to multiple accounts, deputies were used to escort the four top executives from their offices. They also were forced to surrender their take-home cars.

Hutson’s words at the March 10 meeting are a far cry from what the public is accustoming to hearing from the usually low-key elected leader.

But her words reveal her determination to carry out the criminal justice reform mission she promised when she ran for sheriff and pulled off the historic upset of incumbent Marlin Gusman.

“I have made you very powerful people and this is what you’ve done to me with it. I’m going to take it back,” she warned. “You have to use it in the same way that I use it. To accomplish our mission, our vision and to live out our values.”

To emphasize her message, Hutson paraphrased an ancient Chinese proverb:

“When you’re digging a grave for your enemy, dig one for yourself. You dug one for yourself,” she said. “I’m done. I’m done.”