For nearly five months this summer, a company owned by St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens’ cousin and business partner oversaw private security work done by off-duty Sheriff’s Office deputies totaling nearly $900,000.
St. Bernard Parish deputies have provided security for every bit of BP’s oil spill cleanup operations in the parish, but details about the off-duty work run by Tony Fernandez Jr.’s company — how many hours deputies worked, who was working them and when — are unknown to the public.
That’s because the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office keeps no internal documentation about the private details its deputies work, choosing instead to outsource the jobs as separate private contracts between the deputies and the businesses for which they are working. It’s a practice that has been phased out by every other law enforcement agency in the region, in an attempt to increase transparency and prevent potential abuse by deputies who still represent law enforcement even while they are not on department time.
In the case of the BP spill, the private details during the summer were not arranged by the Sheriff’s Office. Instead, Parish Oilfield Services LLC, a company owned by Fernandez, collected money from BP and distributed it to the deputies working the off-duty shifts.
Fernandez is also a partner with Stephens in Amigo Enterprises Inc., which this summer rented marina space in Hopedale to BP for $1.1 million per month, the oil company said. Amigo leases the land for about $2,000 per month from a local nonprofit group, the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, whose president says Amigo has not been paying a stipulated 10 percent of its gross income to the charity, as outlined in a lease agreement.
Until last month, the private security for the BP spill in St. Bernard Parish was run from Fernandez’s company. Since then, the details have been managed by Professional Network Consulting Services, a firm brought in by BP to manage the security.
Neither Fernandez nor Stephens could be reached for comment after numerous phone calls.
Doing the math
BP confirmed the $900,000 figure in early September after St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro called media attention to a standoff between BP and several contractors, including Amigo Enterprises, over the marina lease payments that threatened to shut down parish oil-fighting efforts.
BP would not say whether any administrative fees to Fernandez’s company were included as part of the payments. BP paid $45 per hour for the security details, a 50 percent increase from the Sheriff’s Office’s typical $30 per hour rate.
At $45 an hour, that would mean deputies logged more than 20,000 hours during the summer. That would equate to nearly 2,500 eight-hour shifts over 120 days, meaning 20 deputies working full-day detail shifts every day of the summer.
The Sheriff’s Office employs about 300 people.
Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, who has followed abuses of off-duty police work in New Orleans for decades, said the detail arrangements brokered through a private company are “truly unacceptable, because the public has no way of knowing the true value of the contract.”
“What you can’t determine is how much is being paid to the LLC, and how much actually filters down to the officers,” Radosti said. “If it’s not transparent and the public doesn’t have the ability or the right to ask that question, then it’s truly lacking credibility, and it’s not in the best interest of the people of St. Bernard.”
The Times-Picayune filed a public records request with the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office, seeking the records of the private security details. But a lawyer for the Sheriff’s Office said the department keeps no internal documentation monitoring the off-duty work.
“The Sheriff’s Office has no involvement in these contractual relationships between off-duty deputies and companies who contract with them for their services,” Sal Gutierrez, a lawyer for the Sheriff’s Office, wrote in an e-mail response to the records request. “Therefore, no public records are kept by the St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office of these off-duty details.”
‘A timeless problem’
The policy raises a number of questions about liability for the department. Deputies working private details are sworn law enforcement agents who use taxpayer-financed vehicles and other equipment. Often the rates paid for private details can far exceed the amount a deputy might make on a normal shift for the Sheriff’s Office, and involve less demanding work.
St. Bernard Chief Deputy James Pohlmann said that although there is no central oversight of security details, senior deputies in the department are given the task of overseeing how the details are set up.
“We pay attention to things and make sure there’s a higher ranking guy who would supervise a large detail,” Pohlmann said. He added that the policy has always been the same in St. Bernard, dating back before Stephens, the current sheriff, took office in 1984.
“There’s never been a problem anywhere,” he said. “Remember, everybody works for a supervisor, and everybody has accountability to a supervisor.”
Pohlmann said he did not know details about how the off-duty work was arranged for the BP spill, such as how much Fernandez’s company made or how the details were organized by higher-ranking deputies in the department.
Other sheriff’s offices and police departments in the area maintain records about off-duty work. The changes have come after a history of abuse, particularly in the New Orleans Police Department, where private details became a lucrative business opportunities for a select few high-ranking “brokers” of the off-duty work.
“It’s a timeless problem,” Radosti said. “One of the things a local law enforcement agency has to do is keep track of paid details, simply because you have deputies out there negotiating contracts and deals, being paid a salary from a business. The deputy is getting the full benefits. The department knows nothing about it, and the department gets 100 percent of the liability in case something goes wrong.”
Others document private detail work
At the Jefferson and St. Tammany Parish sheriff’s offices, and the Kenner Police Department, there are separate detail offices tasked with fielding requests for private details and assigning those duties to deputies.
Every request must go through the detail office, where there is documentation and written authorization from the department. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office also takes $2 per hour of the $30 per hour rate, to cover any liability and the use of Sheriff’s Office equipment.
In St. John and St. Charles parishes, written authorization from the sheriff is required for every outside job done by deputies, and all requests must go through the department hierarchy before assignments are made.
The New Orleans Police Department has a lengthy list of requirements for paid details, and the department requires a detail log book that is maintained by each district commander, specifying all officers working off-duty jobs and how many hours they are working.
The NOPD requirements came after a particularly dark period for the department and its management of off-duty officers in the mid-1990s. Officer Antoinette Frank was sentenced to death for her role in the murder of another officer and two restaurant employees at an eastern New Orleans restaurant where she worked details. And NOPD Deputy Chief Antoine Saacks was dismissed after a number of allegations involving a private security enterprise he ran on the side.