NEW ORLEANS — When Kyshun Webster was named director of New Orleans’ juvenile jail, questions already swirled about his fitness for the job.
Years earlier, Webster’s non-profit education program for youngsters was flagged by federal auditors when nearly $1 million was unaccounted for. The audit also questioned extravagant personal spending by Webster, who was already paying himself a salary of $130,000 a year.
But not only did Webster overcome his past when he was hired by the city, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration approved an unusual outside work agreement allowing Webster to devote up to five hours a week running his Kenner insurance company, Compassion Society Benefits.
In a WWL-TV investigative series in May, several current and former JJIC employees said Webster was absent far more than five hours weekly.
Employees said Webster often went unseen for weeks at a time, sinking morale at the 76-bed lockup and contributing to rampant turnover that left only 47 of 103 positions were filled at the troubled facility.
Amid several years of violent outbreaks by detainees in which NOPD had to be called, one of the most serious came on Jan. 12, when four juveniles escaped, with two of them immediately carjacking a woman in the area.
Webster addressed the media about the escapes the next day. But something else happened that day that was never made public: A letter from the city firing Webster.
“On behalf of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, I would like to thank you for your service and your commitment to the City of New Orleans and its citizens,” began the letter from CAO Gilbert Montano.
“As we move forward with Mayor Cantrell’s vision for government operations, we have decided to make personnel and organizational changes…To that end, we are releasing you from the position of Executive Director, effective today, January 13, 2022.”
That day came and went as NOPD SWAT officers fanned out over the city to round up the escaped juveniles, but Webster would remain on the job for another two months. The letter apparently was never delivered, yet the city has ignored WWL-TV’s requests for an explanation.
City Council member Joe Giarrusso said he was shocked to learn about the dismissal letter.
Giarrusso speculated that the planned termination of Webster must have been based on an accumulation of serious missteps over a period of time. He also noted that executives almost always are forced to “resign” rather than get a pink slip to allow them to save face.
“I don't know that I've seen a mayor send a letter to one of the department heads saying, 'You're gone.' Ordinarily, somebody is leaving of their own accord or there's a resignation,” Giarrusso said.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the non-profit watchdog group The Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the city’s silence on the matter is troubling.
“They go to the trouble of drafting that letter and not presenting it to him, I think the public is owed an explanation,” he said.
Goyeneche said that even with the city stonewalling on the matter, the letter does reveal one thing loud and clear.
“That, I think, speaks volumes about, at least from the city's perspective, his failures,” he said.
Instead of getting fired, Webster remained the jail’s director and continued to collect his $143,000 annual salary for more than two months.
Even after he took a leave of absence on March 18, city records show he was paid more than $21,000 in accrued sick time and vacation time under the guidelines of the Family Medical Leave Act.
WWL-TV reached out to Webster several times, but have received no response. He was, however, seen frequently around the city during his leave, as Council Vice-President J.P. Morrell noted at an April council hearing about the problems at JJIC in which Webster was invited, but didn’t attend.
Morrell’s comments came as the council probed several critical issues at JJIC, including how the staff dwindled to half of its budgeted strength, Webster's direct supervisors, Youth and Families Director Emily Wolff and Homeland Security Chief John Thomas, sat in front of the council for nearly two hours at a hearing, offering no hint that Webster had been on the verge of getting canned.
When Morrell threatened to serve a council subpoena to Webster to compel him to appear, John Thomas said, “He's dealing with a personal matter.”
“I appreciate that,” Morrell responded. “I saw Dr. Webster at a track meet on Saturday.”
“For him not to be here to comment on how things happened under his tenure there is very troubling,” Morrell continued.
Webster finally resigned from the city on April 29, but he would quickly pop up again at the side of newly elected Sheriff Susan Hutson.
From Hutson’s inauguration and throughout the first couple of weeks of her tenure, Webster was introduced around the Orleans Justice Center – the adult jail – as a “chief,” even chairing meetings for Hutson.
In Hutson's first week on the job, her spokesman Timothy David Ray issued a statement about Webster.
“The Sheriff considers Dr. Webster a friend and a valued partner in the fight for criminal justice reform,” Ray wrote in an email “He volunteered his expertise during her transition and she is very thankful for his help during that time. Beyond that, he has not been hired by her Administration at this time.”
After two weeks at the jail, and after WWL-TV aired its series on Webster’s absenteeism and mismanagement, he stopped showing up, according to multiple sources inside and outside the jail.
“He went from being there on a daily basis, presiding over meetings, to mysteriously disappearing,” Goyeneche said.
Sheriff Hutson, who campaigned heavily on a promise of transparency, has not responded to multiple requests for more details about Webster’s tenure at the jail, including his role and whether he was paid. The sheriff’s office also has not responded to requests for information about Webster under the state’s Public Records Act.
While Webster has largely disappeared from the public eye, he will likely re-emerge, at least on paper, as the subject of an investigation by the New Orleans Office of Inspector General. Monthly reports from the OIG have stated that one of its ongoing investigations is focused on the JJIC, including “electronic records” detailing Webster’s attendance.