ZURIK: Questions surround Orleans Sheriff Susan Hutson’s lack of transparency
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Days before Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson faced off against longtime incumbent Marlin Gusman in a runoff for the position, she appealed to voters on Twitter. Her message was that New Orleans deserves a sheriff that will abide by the basic values of transparency and accountability.
However, for months since Hutson was sworn in, her office has refused to send FOX 8 news releases related to her office, has only answered questions from our reporters once, and has failed to hand over public records from four separate requests made in June 2022.
Dillard University public policy professor Robert Collins believes the sheriff’s office may be singling out FOX 8 in its refusal to hand over information.
“It’s very clear that for some reason, she has decided to attempt to punish FOX 8 by denying them access to public information,” said Collins.
The person responsible for Hutson’s media requests is Timothy David Ray. Ray was the subject of a series of FOX 8 investigations. He served as interim First City Clerk of Court, before losing the race for the seat in 2019.
FOX 8′s investigations showed in his final days in office, he wrote two questionable checks to vendors, possibly misspending public funds.
In one case, Ray wrote a check to Plaquemines Parish pastor Merlin Flores for nearly $5,000 to install new shelves.
While the note on the check said it was for shelf installation, the invoice said the money was also for refitting existing shelves. And, when FOX 8 reached Flores by phone, he said he only gave Ray an estimate for the work but didn’t actually install new shelves.
Current First City Clerk of Court Austin Badon confirms Flores didn’t install any shelves in the office.
FOX 8′s stories led to an investigation and sanctions for Ray. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel found Ray engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. In March of 2022, the state supreme court found he “acted with a dishonest or selfish motive” and suspended his law license for a year.
While Ray is currently unable to practice law, he’s been acting as Hutson’s chief communications officer.
Tulane University Emeritus Professor Joel Friedman questions why Ray got the job despite his alleged misspending of public money.
“This was well known... well publicized,” said Friedman. “Why [would the sheriff] hire him for this public relations position after he had been disbarred for financial mismanagement of public funds?”
When FOX 8 asked the sheriff’s office for a list of all current employees and their salaries, Ray’s name didn’t appear on the list. The sheriff didn’t provide any explanation as to why Ray’s name and salary weren’t included. FOX 8 also asked for a list of all contract employees and outside employees. Ray’s name wasn’t on that list either.
“I can’t imagine that he’s a volunteer doing this work for nothing,” said Friedman. “So, it doesn’t make any sense. And it makes you wonder, why would they hide the nature of his employment relationship, since it’s publicly known because he appears publicly on behalf of the sheriff?”
One employee who is on the salary list is Deborah Chapman, Timothy David Ray’s mother. Chapman served as Hutson’s campaign manager and joined the office after she won. It’s unclear what her position is with the sheriff’s office, but she makes $155,000 per year.
Collins wonders if FOX 8′s reporting on Ray has essentially led the sheriff to block FOX 8 from communications.
“It makes one wonder whether or not her communications director, and perhaps her communications director’s mother, who ran her campaign, are trying to protect her, trying to shield her, trying to be gatekeeper, and keep certain members of the press away from her because they have a vendetta against FOX 8 based on past investigations,” said Collins.
Back in June, a FOX 8 manager emailed Ray, asking why the station hadn’t received any press releases from the office. He responded to that email, saying the station should be getting them.
The next day, reporter Olivia Vidal requested an interview with Hutson, following Hutson’s meeting with Mayor LaToya Cantrell on her decision to pull deputies from criminal court.
Ray responded to Vidal’s request with a statement. When she asked again for an interview, Ray responded he would get back to her, but never did.
The next day, Vidal once again asked for an interview with Hutson. Ray responded by telling her to send all queries via email. Vidal then sent the request by email, however, since that communication, FOX 8 hasn’t heard from Ray again.
FOX 8 managers have also asked for a meeting with Hutson to discuss the issues surrounding the lack of communication.
News Director Kristen Palestina wrote that Hutson’s office has, “refused to send us the information like it has done for decades through previous administrations.” She added employees at the station have, “specifically asked the sheriff’s office for press releases or statements sent to other New Orleans media outlets and received no response.”
Palestina ended the email by writing, “Television stations are one of the most important conduits for critical public safety information to your constituents, and we want to make sure we’re providing that information to the public.”
Hutson never responded to that email.
In the nearly four months since Hutson has been sheriff, the jail has seen homicides, a suicide, and a group of inmates taking over a section of the jail. FOX 8 has received no press releases from the sheriff’s office about those incidents.
The only press release FOX 8 received involved a planned hurricane evacuation exercise at the jail. That email did not come from Ray. It was sent by an employee who also worked for former sheriff Gusman.
Political analysts say this isn’t about FOX 8, but about blocking access to information the public has a right to know.
“It’s surprising that a sheriff who ran on the issue of transparency and who accused the previous sheriff of not being transparent, is now deciding to be secretive about a lot of the happenings within the jail,” said Collins.
New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno told Hutson to make sure all news outlets were getting information at a recent council meeting.
Their exchange was as follows:
Moreno: “Getting information to all media outlets, being fair with news releases when they go out, making sure no one is excluded.”
Hutson: “Yeah, I have no issues with that.”
However, when Hutson left that meeting, she apparently changed her mind. She refused to acknowledge questions from FOX 8 reporter Kaitlin Rust.
Rust: “Sheriff Hutson are you going to start releasing information to FOX 8?”
Hutson: “We’re not good. No conversations now.”
Rust: “I really want this to be focused on your work and not a lack of transparency.”
Some experts say Hutson’s refusal to provide the information the public has a right to know goes against her campaign promise of transparency. They believe it is because of FOX 8′s investigations, which got Hutson’s chief communications officer suspended from practicing law.
“It is totally inappropriate for a public entity to freeze out a news media outlet … because that media outlet properly and correctly reported on wrongdoing by someone who is now an employee of the sheriff’s office,” said Friedman. “It’s outrageous. It’s there’s no excuse for it. And ultimately, the Sheriff has to be held accountable for this.”
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