In interviews by IG investigators, members of the sheriff’s staff who were offered rooms told the top brass up front that they didn’t think the rooms were necessary.
By Mike Perlstein | 4WWL | Nov. 1, 2023
NEW ORLEANS — The controversy over Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson’s decision to pay for hotel rooms for 13 top employees during Carnival started with questions about whether OPSO was justified in paying for any rooms for her staff.
Now, an investigation by the city’s Office of Inspector General reveals that for more than half of the nights, the rooms went empty.
“DA Williams and his mother were unharmed and both thank the NOPD for their hard work tonight and every night responding to crime victims.”
“It’s a colossal waste of public money,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a non-profit watchdog group.
Using its subpoena power to obtain electronic room key records, IG investigators documented that of the 90 total nights paid by the sheriff, the rooms at the Omni Royal Orleans in the French Quarter went unused 53 nights.
Three of the rooms were never used, the report states, and three more rooms were only used for one night each. The investigators calculated that the occupancy rate of the rooms was 41 percent.
In interviews by IG investigators, members of the sheriff’s staff who were offered rooms told the top brass up front that they didn’t think the rooms were necessary and didn’t plan on using them.
The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office issued a statement Wednesday around 6 p.m. “We disagree with the IG’s characterization of our effort to keep residents and visitors safe by providing hotel rooms for our officers providing security at Mardi Gras. The safety of our citizens is always paramount. OPSO believes we identified a suitable way to provide the housing, but the IG has disagreed.”
WWL-TV previously revealed emails that indicated a fierce internal debate over the rooms and, ultimately, the forced resignations of four of Hutson’s executive leaders involved the controversy.
The emails revealed that then-Chief Financial Officer David Trautenberg warned that the purchase of the rooms would violate the sheriff’s agreement with the city to provide lodging only for outside law enforcement officers who traveled from more than 35 miles away.
Huston overruled Trautenberg, agreeing with then-Assistant Sheriff Kristen Morales, who helped arrange the rooms. Following the controversy over the rooms once they were made public, Hutson fired Trautenberg and Morales, along with two other members of her executive staff.
From that point, however, the paths of Morales and Trautenberg went in very different directions. Morales, banned from the office, continued to work from home for several months at her full salary of $155,000, while Trautenberg, now working in Colorado, recently filed a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Even after the hotel rooms were exposed, Hutson defended her decision.
“This team, I am very proud of the work they did. And I think this is money well spent,” Sheriff Susan Hutson said in March after the controversy surfaced. “I think we made a good call with these folks.”
In its 14-page report, the IG pegged the cost of the vacant rooms at $11,046, more than half of the total cost of $18,174.
“It just keeps getting worse, honestly,” City Council Vice-President Helena Moreno said.
Hutson was not available for an interview Wednesday, but she previously noted that the rooms were paid for out of a “special projects account” and not directly from taxpayer money provided by the city.
According to the sheriff’s office, that account uses money from sources like fundraisers and vending machines. Moreno said that distinction is irrelevant.
“This is not the sheriff’s own private account. This isn’t her campaign account,” Moreno said. “These are your public dollars that were being spent toward this.”
Goyenche said, “The inspector general and your station have exposed the inconvenient truth, that this was an improper use of public funds.”
The IG’s investigators were unable to pinpoint precisely who first came up with the idea to get the rooms, although some members of Hutson’s staff were under the impression that some hotel rooms were provided to officers with the NOPD. That assumption turned out to be false, according to the report.
“The funds expended by the OPSO for hotel rooms obtained during Mardi Gras 2023 for the command staff was wasteful and unnecessary,” the report concludes. “The wasteful expenditure of any funds, taxpayer or public, must be prevented to ensure the government is a steward of those funds.”
In October, after WWL-TV first exposed that multiple rooms went unused on multiple nights, Hutson continued to defend her decision.
In an emailed statement, she wrote that the rooms were “booked at the request of leadership based on an express need for a place that they could rest based on the long hours required of them.”
“Providing a safe place for staff to sleep, wash or rest while they went above and beyond to perform their duties for this agency and the city is not something that needs justification,” the statement reads. “These men and women were asked not only to manage their regular job duties, but to also coordinate logistics for something that had never been done in the city’s history – a task they happily threw themselves into in support of the Mardi Gras krewes and the city who called on us for help.”