NEW ORLEANS — While Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson explained that her dismissal of four of her top executives was already in the works as part of a transition as she approaches the one-year mark of her time in office, one of those employees is directly contradicting Hutson and saying he is contemplating filing for whistleblower status.
An attorney for David Trautenberg, the sheriff’s former chief financial officer, stated that his client “was fired shortly after launching an internal, financial investigation into the use of hotel rooms paid for by OPSO over the Mardi Gras holiday, along with the propriety of a cash donation made by a third-party company to OPSO covering the costs of those hotel rooms.”
The lodging controversy came to light in media reports shortly after Mardi Gras.
In a press briefing Tuesday on the front steps of the Orleans Justice Center, Hutson denied that the dust-up over the hotel rooms – and the internal dissent over her decision – had anything to do with her staff shake-up.
"I want to be very clear. That any media stories have nothing to do with the changes that I'm making. None," she said. "This is all about us moving forward as an organization." Hutson took office last May.
But multiple sources inside the sheriff’s office said the top executives who were put on notice Friday and fired Monday were blind-sided by the sudden dismissals.
In addition to Trautenberg, former legal counsel Graham Bosworth and Assistant Sheriff Pearlina Thomas were let go, while Assistant Sheriff and Chief of Internal Affairs Kristen Morales will stay another 30 days to help with a transition.
The lodging controversy was revealed by WWL-TV, showing that the Hutson approved housing 13 top deputies in high-end hotel rooms – some for as long as 11 days and nights – as they helped NOPD with Carnival parade security. The police department, which oversees Carnival security, did not book any rooms for its officers.
The sheriff’s decision to book the rooms had been strongly opposed by Trautenberg, but she over-ruled him. In internal emails obtained exclusively by WWL-TV, 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.
Yet on the same day that Hutson defended the lodging as appropriate, she announced that a dog training company in Vermillion Parish, LA-K9, was donating more than $19,000 to cover the costs.
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.
“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.”
Multiple high-ranking internal sources said the lodging controversy was far from the first major disagreement among top sheriff’s office executives. Far from it, some insiders said that dissension among Hutson’s top advisors has been almost constant since she took office in May.
Among the indicators of the turmoil, records obtained by WWL-TV show that from May to September last year, the sheriff paid a consultant $15,650 to provide services such as “conflict coaching” and “mediation” for members of Hutson's staff.
The consultant, Alison McCrary, is an attorney who does business as Just Spirit LLC. McCrary previously worked under Hutson when Hutson served as the city's Independent Police Monitor.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the non-profit watchdog group the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he has also been following the turbulence among Hutson’s top staff for months.
“This is a symptom of some profound issues, management issues, in the sheriff's office that have been there since day one,” Goyeneche said. “She had to hire a consultant to help mediate disputes that were occurring behind the scenes in her organization.”
Hutson, however, denied that internal strife and the recent lodging controversy had anything to do with her decision to overhaul her executive staff.
“These decisions were already in motion pending my one-year anniversary coming up,” Hutson said at her Tuesday media briefing. “These personnel moves were totally about moving the organization forward. I have a mission, and I keep my eyes on that mission every day.”
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