By Mike Perlstein | WWL-TV | September 8, 2022
NEW ORLEANS — From almost the day she took office, Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson has been hit by one crisis after another, from an inmate’s death in a fight, to a suicide, to a standoff with inmates who took over an entire tier for three days.
Despite these emergencies, Hutson took one of the largest groups of any local sheriff to this year’s annual Louisiana Sheriff’s Association conference in Destin, Florida, all at taxpayer expense.
Part vacation, part political gathering, but mostly an educational opportunity for sheriffs and their top brass, the LSA conference is held nearly every summer at the upscale Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. The LSA has long justified the out-of-state trip as a way to meet, hear sales pitches from vendors, and get training without local distractions.
For this year’s conference held July 31 to Aug. 4, the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s office said it sent Sheriff Jerry Turlich and three of his top officials. St. Bernard sent Sheriff Jimmy Pohlman and one sergeant overseeing the jail. Jefferson Parish sent Sheriff Joe Lopinto along with two others, his chief deputy and a civilian director.
By comparison, newly elected Orleans Sheriff Susan Hutson brought 10 of her top officials, according to records provided to WWL-TV in response to a public records request. One sheriff in the region – St. Tammany Sheriff Randy Smith – did not respond.
“This is certainly surprising. I don’t know why so many people would need to go to this particular conference,” said New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno.
Records show that all of the New Orleans participants are part of Hutson’s executive staff and all of their expenses were paid by taxpayers except for one, Lt. Col. Elaine Frantz, whose tab was covered by the LSA because she helped organize the event.
In addition to Hutson, the other attendees from OPSO were Capt. Inga Barre, Warden Astrid Birgden, attorney Graham Bosworth, Assistant Sheriff Kristen Morales, Sgt. Kevin Poret, Dr. David Trautenberg, Lt. Aaron Washington, Assistant Sheriff Laura Veazy and Sheriff’s Adjutant Ahmad Vitatoe.
“I think this is an indication of some fiscal irresponsibility to bring this number of people,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the non-profit Metropolitan Crime Commission, a criminal justice watchdog group.
Of the records obtained by WWL-TV, only one comparison comes close to Hutson’s group: Marlin Gusman, the incumbent sheriff Hutson unseated in the fall election, attended the 2021 conference with seven of his top staff.
Both Gusman, and now Hutson, have complained to the city council that low deputy pay makes it difficult to keep the jail full-staffed.
“You can’t be saying that you’re cash-strapped then spending so lavishly,” Moreno said.
Records show the price tag for Sheriff Hutson and her group was $23,740 for the 2022 conference for hotel rooms, registration, transportation and per diem for meals. The hotel rooms alone cost more than $300 a night.
By comparison, the records show that Gusman’s 2021 cost was $10,844, with Gusman and another member of his group staying off-site at their own expense.
The cost comparison is even more glaring in neighboring parishes, where in addition to running the local jail, sheriffs are also the front-line police force. The 2022 tab for Jefferson was $7,135, the records show. For St. Bernard, it was $3,927.
“So at a time when (Sheriff Hutson) is complaining that her budget is inadequate to safely operation the jail, this is a luxury that I don’t really think fits in the budget,” Goyeneche said.
There was another factor that set New Orleans apart in 2022. Three days before the LSA conference, another inmate was stabbed during a knife fight. During the five days of the conference, three more inmates were stabbed in fights, two of them taken to the hospital.
The records do not show that any member of the sheriff’s office left the conference early.
WWL-TV has made repeated requests to Hutson for comment, but she has not responded, despite her campaign promises to run her office with “accountability and transparency.”
When Lonnie Greco was Plaquemines Sheriff from 2012 to 2016, he attended the LSA conference all four years. As a rookie sheriff, Greco recalled going with two of his executive staff members. When asked how he would respond if there was an emergency back home, such as a death at his jail, he said, “I would be coming back myself, because the buck stops with me.”
“The LSA understands when you have a problem, you’ve got to take care of your problem,” Greco said.