Gusman agrees to pay lawyers who sued him $900,000

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has agreed to pay a group of lawyers who sued him over unconstitutional conditions at his jail nearly $1 million in legal fees, despite having previously characterized them as rumor-mongering sensationalists.

The sheriff signed an agreement Wednesday with the Southern Poverty Law Center, promising to pay the lawyers $900,000 over the next five years, in exchange for their work that led to his begrudging acceptance of a looming federal consent decree.

The center filed suit against the sheriff in April 2012 on behalf of inmates in Orleans Parish Prison.

The U.S. Department of Justice joined the suit, eventually leading to the consent decree, a blueprint for sweeping reforms at a jail notorious for its stabbings, beatings, rapes, suicides, escapes and deaths.

Some correctional experts have called it the worst jail they have ever seen.

Gusman has decried those assessments, saying most of the problems stem from insufficient funding provided by New Orleans.

The Southern Poverty Law Center requested its lawyers be paid $1.1 million for their work, citing the thousands of inmates involved and the sheriff’s resistance to reforms.

Gusman resisted that figure, according to court records.

When he signed the consent decree in December, along with the Justice Department and the law center, Gusman refused to admit that he ran a dangerous or unconstitutional jail. He described the nonprofit civil rights organization and its New Orleans leader, attorney Katie Schwartzmann, as being “in the business of cultivating rumors and untruths to serve their own litigious purposes,” according to reports in The Times-Picayune.

He insisted they “perpetuate inaccurate accounts” of violence and misery at the jail.

A legal fight continues over whether Gusman or the city must pay for the reforms to the jail. That question is under consideration by U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing implementation of the consent decree.

Gusman agreed Wednesday to pay the Southern Poverty Law Center the $900,000.

He must write a first check for $15,000 on Jan. 15 and then pay the same amount on the 15th of every month until the debt is paid.

Gusman pays his own lawyers, the firm of Usry, Weeks and Matthews, a flat rate of $68,000 every two weeks. If that arrangement continues, in the five years it will take him to pay the Southern Poverty Law Center its $900,000, he will have paid his own lawyers about $8.8 million.

The joint request for the financial settlement, signed by Schwartzmann and Gusman’s attorneys, said that both sides prefer to focus on implementing the consent decree, rather than engage in a protracted fight over attorney fees.

Africk must sign the deal before it becomes official.