NEW ORLEANS — This is Part 3 of "Room Service," an ongoing investigation into the Orleans Parish Sheriff's use of high-end hotel rooms for top commanders during Carnival. You can read the first and second parts here.
Responding to criticism over the use of public money to book local hotel rooms for 13 top commanders who helped supervise Carnival parade security, Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson firmly defended her decision.
“I don't see controversy here, no. I see this as being money well spent to make sure that a million dollars was also well spent,” Hutson told WWL-TV in an interview.
Yet within hours of that interview, the Sheriff’s Office made a surprise announcement that a dog training company in Vermillion Parish, LAK9, donated more than $18,000 to cover the costs of the rooms at the Omni Royal Orleans, Sheraton and Marriott hotels.
The congratulatory announcement included Hutson awarding “honorary deputy” status to two LAK9 operators. One of those operators, Lance Broussard, characterized the donation in a Facebook post, writing that was an honor to meet the sheriff “and help her out with a little problem.”
While Broussard’s choice of words may have been a faux pas, some far more deliberate misgivings about the lodging came from within Hutson’s office.
According to internal sheriff’s office emails obtained by WWL-TV, the hotel expenses were questioned from the very beginning by Hutson’s chief financial officer, David Trautenberg.
Trautenberg voiced his opposition as far back as Feb. 10, just before that first weekend of Carnival parades, during which rooms were booked for two top commanders at the Sheraton and Marriott.
If “you are an OPSO employee you are not eligible to have a paid hotel room,” Trautenberg wrote in an email. “We have mattresses we can get from the warehouse.” In a later email he specified that the mattresses could be used by employees to sleep at the office “similar to hurricane protocol.”
Trautenberg’s directive was not followed by Hutson. The sheriff not only approved rooms for the first weekend of Carnival, but for 13 additional rooms at the Omni Royal Orleans – some for eight days and nights – ending on Fat Tuesday. Hutson later defended her decision, saying she didn’t want her deputies driving home late after working long hours.
Asked about her decision to go against the advice of her CFO, Hutson was adamant that there was no “division within the office.”
“As I said, there's no overruling. There was no division. We have debates about what goes on and we have conversation about what goes on. And that's what we do in every instance. And then I make a decision,” Hutson said.
After Mardi Gras, Trautenberg again emailed the top brass on March 5 as he was preparing to ask the city for reimbursement for some of the sheriff’s office Carnival expenses. One of his concerns was an accounting of who stayed in the rooms.
“We also have an obligation to know if the employees represented as requiring rooms actually were the individuals who then checked in,” Trautenberg wrote. “This is a normal and customary after-the-fact audit function.”
Instead of an answer, he got a blistering response from Assistant Sheriff Laura Veazey, who wrote, “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.”
Trautenberg was not the only high-ranking member of the sheriff's staff to raise concerns. In another March 5 email, the sheriff's legal counsel Graham Bosworth defended the CFO's inquiries about the rooms, emphasizing the need for transparency when using public funds.
“David is correct,” Bosworth wrote, “these are public funds that were used and transparency is required by law.”
Bosworth wrote that if a room that was booked went unused, that would be “a problem.”
“The city would likely not reimburse us and the wasted expense is something we could be hit for on an audit,” he wrote. “It’s not criminal, but it would be wasteful.”
As it turns out, any notion that the city would reimburse the sheriff’s office for the lodging appears to have been misguided. In a cooperative endeavor agreement between the sheriff and city, the city only agreed to pay for lodging for outside agencies who sent officers from more than 35 miles away.
But Bosworth wrote that he had an even bigger concern, stating that there could be the “basis of bigger investigations” if “someone other than an OPSO employee used the room that OPSO paid for.”
The internal hand wringing over the rooms inside the Sheriff’s Office came before the high-end hotel rooms were exposed by WWL-TV. Once the expenses were revealed, they quickly drew criticism.
City Councilman Joe Giarrusso questioned why any city employee would need lodging for work in the city. He pointed out that the New Orleans Police Department, the main supervisor of parade security, didn’t book rooms for any of its officers.
“A lot of public servants are crunched and they spend the night in their own bed,” Giarrusso said.
Giarrusso said the Sheriff’s Office should come clean about who stayed in the hotel rooms.
“If you're booking a room in the name of John Doe and Jane Smith is staying in there, who's unrelated to John Doe, why is that happening?” Giarrusso asked.
Another vocal critic of the lodging has been Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a non-profit watchdog organization.
“I believe that she owes an accounting to the City of New Orleans and a full disclosure to the public as to not only how many rooms, but who resided in those rooms and whose decision was it to approve this boondoggle.” Goyeneche said. “I believe that that's an improper use of public funds,” he said.
Despite the internal sheriff’s office emails expressing concern about the use of the hotel rooms, Hutson said she had seen no evidence that the rooms were used by anyone other than her employees.
“We are still debriefing about what went on during Mardi Gras,” Hutson said. “What went well, what didn't go well. But I have no information that says anything other than our personnel used those rooms.”
Nevertheless, Giarrusso says the sheriff owes the public a full and official accounting of the hotel rooms and who used them. He signaled that he is ready to use his committee to get answers.
“The sheriff is going to have to account both in the media and to us at our quarterly meeting in March,” he said.
The council's budget committee is scheduled to meet Monday and Wednesday next week.