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Ethics idea has support on N.O. council

Ethics idea has support on N.O. council
Several members call for inspector general
Thursday, July 13, 2006
By Bruce Eggler
Staff writer

Saying it is crucial that New Orleans be able to reassure the nation that its post-Katrina
government is honest and competent, several City Council members Wednesday reaffirmed their
support for creating an inspector general’s office to weed out waste, fraud and inefficiency at City

“Come hell or high water, we’re going to get this done,” said Councilwoman Shelley Midura,
who has spearheaded the effort to create an inspector general and ethics review board.

A sweeping 1995 revision of the City Charter mandated creation of the ethics board and
authorized the office of inspector general, but neither has ever been implemented.

The ethics discussion came against a background of controversy over former Councilwoman
Renee Gill Pratt’s donation of four city vehicles to nonprofits closely tied to Gill Pratt. After she
lost her re-election bid earlier this year, Gill Pratt got a job with one of the groups and ended up
driving one of the donated vehicles. Gill Pratt and the nonprofits returned the four cars to the city
last week, and the FBI said it is looking into the donations.

“I don’t think there’s anything more important facing the city than regaining the confidence of its
citizens,” Councilman Arnie Fielkow said at Wednesday’s council hearing.

Council President Oliver Thomas said he is ready to reduce his office staff if necessary to free up
some of the money needed to hire an inspector general and staff.

After Midura’s Governmental Affairs Committee heard two hours of testimony about how
inspectors general operate in other jurisdictions, the committee passed a Fielkow motion
endorsing the concept of creating both an inspector general’s office and an ethics review board.
Fielkow said he hopes legislation to set up the inspector general’s office will be ready for review
by the time the committee meets again in early August. In the meantime, he said, he hopes the
council’s Budget Committee will look further at the question of how much such an office would
cost and where the city could find the money for it.

Widespread support

Leaders of the New Orleans Business Council, the League of Women Voters and the Bureau of
Governmental Research all told Midura’s committee they support creating an inspector general’s
office and strengthening ethics rules in city government.

Jay Lapeyre, chairman of the Business Council, said business owners want “predictable rules”
and “a level playing field” for all, not a city where some people are able to make special deals at
City Hall and get unfair advantages. Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental
Research, said it was “really refreshing” to see a council committee focus on “best practices”
around the country.

State ethics officials told the Budget Committee last week that it would take a minimum of
$200,000 a year to start an inspector general’s office.

Revenue sources

Chris Mazzella, inspector general for Miami-Dade County, Fla., said that was the initial budget
for his office when it began in 1997. In its first year, he said, it uncovered about $10 million in
waste and fraud. Its budget has since grown to close to $4 million, and Mazzella said it
recovered almost $17 million in misspent money last year.

Patra Liu, Mazzella’s top deputy, said the office gets 35 percent of its budget from the city and
county’s general fund; 15 percent from the Miami airport, transit system, water board and other
agencies that it also audits and investigates; 10 percent from interest on invested money; and 40
percent from a .25 percent fee that it gets from most contracts awarded by the city or other
agencies. Thus, a company getting a $1 million contract would have to pay $2,500 to the
inspector general’s office.

Fielkow and other council members expressed interest in using a similar fee to help pay for a
local inspector general’s office.

Mazzella, who spent 33 years with the FBI before becoming Miami’s first inspector general, said
the office was created “against a background of massive corruption” whose depth and extent
surprised even him. Since then, he said, its work has led to a significant increase in public
confidence in government.

Besides cases of “traditional corruption,” such as bribes and kickbacks to public officials,
Mazzella said, his office tries to ferret out mismanagement and incompetence among both
government workers and contractors.

Roland Malan, executive director of the Association of Inspectors General, said that just as
important as detecting and punishing waste and theft is preventing such abuses before they
occur by letting elected officials and government workers know there is a good chance their
misdeeds will be exposed.

He said an inspector general’s office should have the power to conduct criminal, civil and
administrative investigations, subpoena documents and issue public reports. The office must
have access to all records, all facilities and all officials, even the highest, and should report to the
council, not the mayor, he said.

Malan said that to avoid conflicts of interest, a council-appointed inspector general should not
audit or investigate council members and should refer allegations or evidence of misconduct on
their part to state or federal investigators.

Mazzella said he disagreed with that. He said he does not have to report to anyone and has
jurisdiction over all public money and all public officials, elected or appointed, in Miami. He can
make even the highest officials provide information and answer questions, he said.

Malan suggested the council should appoint an inspector general for a definite term, perhaps five
to seven years, with a guarantee that the appointee can be removed only for specified cause by
a two-thirds vote of the council.

Louisiana Inspector General Sharon Robinson said she would welcome having a similar office in
New Orleans and that its efforts “wouldn’t be at all duplicative” of the work she does.

Ed Quatrevaux, former inspector general of the federal Legal Services Corp., said inspector
general offices throughout the federal government generated $3.5 billion in repayments and
savings last year. Such an office “can be a profit center,” he said.
. . . . . . .
Bruce Eggler can be reached at or (504) 826-3320.

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