In The News › Subpoena power pushed for N.O. Inspector General

Oct 16, 2006

Source: New Orleans CityBusiness

Subpoena power pushed for N.O. Inspector General

Subpoena power pushed for N.O. Inspector General
by Deon Roberts

Voters approved creating a New Orleans Office of Inspector General in 1995 to help root out governmental corruption and waste.

Until now, the idea has lain dormant. The City Council is expected to establish the office this week.

But the IG’s lack of subpoena power, which would force individuals to cooperate with corruption investigations, still threatens to undermine the effectiveness of the office.

“It is a hindrance. Most inspectors general have subpoena power and they have it for a very for good reason, because if they don’t they’re going to be impaired from having access to the information they want from those who are reluctant to provide it to them,” said Roland Milan, executive director of the Association of Inspectors General and IG for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 1995 to 2000.

The City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on an ordinance drafted by Councilwoman Shelley Midura to officially establish the IG. All seven City Council members and the mayor support the office.

Midura, who took office this year and made the IG one of her top priorities, believes she can not legally include subpoena power in her ordinance.

The problem: the city charter allows only the City Council and an ethics review board to issue subpoenas. The city charter would have to be amended to extend such power to an inspector general, Midura said.

Watchdog agencies such as the Bureau of Governmental Research and the Metropolitan Crime Commission say the IG will be toothless in eliminating corruption, waste and inefficiency without subpoena power.

A subpoena is a powerful tool in compelling third parties such as contractors to cooperate with investigations.

Enforcement power

“You can’t do anything without subpoena powers. To be effective they really need those,” said BGR President Janet Howard.

“I think it makes it more difficult for that agency to be the public watchdog that they want them to (be),” said MCC President Rafael Goyeneche.

Midura said the lack of subpoena power is a concern. But she will not stall the creation of the office.

“I think it’s going to be as effective as it can possibly be without the subpoena power,” Midura said. “We recognized from the get-go that we were constrained in that way. Our overreaching goal has been to make it independent and far-reaching with as much authority as possible.

“We can fix the charter at a later time but we don’t want to let that hold up the office from being created.”

Midura said subpoenas won’t be needed to investigate city operations. She said the ordinance compels city employees and anyone with city contracts to cooperate with IG investigations.

The ordinance specifies penalties for noncompliant city employees. Seung Hong, Midura’s legislative director, said existing city law calls for fines up to $500 and/or up to six months in jail for city employees who violate an ordinance. What penalties can be levied on contractors working for the city is unclear, he said.

‘Political maneuvering’

Amending the charter is a long process. It requires a majority of City Council members to support a referendum to bring the issue before voters who must approve the amendment.

Milan said it’s not ideal to adopt the ordinance and at a later time try to add subpoena powers. It’s already taken a lot of political maneuvering for the New Orleans IG ordinance to reach this point, he said. Leaving out something as “intense” as subpoena powers in the initial ordinance could mean major political maneuvering later, he said.

“The likelihood is it just probably won’t ever surface again or if it does it may not succeed,” he said.

Hong said the city attorney’s office is unsure whether the IG can be given subpoena powers. The IG could request a subpoena through the City Council or the yet-created ethics review board.

But Council subpoena approval raises other questions. If a City Council member is being investigated, the IG would risk tipping off the person under investigation with such a request, Hong said.

The solution is to invest the inspector general with subpoena powers.

“We want this office to have subpoena powers,” Hong said.

Goyeneche said the city should not delay creating the IG office even without subpoena power. But if a change in the city charter is needed to grant subpoena powers, “then let’s start the process. If we’re going to do it, it’s worth doing it right,” he said.

Midura did not seem concerned about winning City Council support later to amend the charter.

“I think they will recognize how much more of a benefit that will be,” she said.•

Oct 16, 2006

Source: New Orleans CityBusiness

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