BGR warns about politicizing Office of Inspector General as it weighs Ethics Review Board reforms

By Jessica Williams

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

December 21, 2020

The board that recently ousted New Orleans Inspector General Derry Harper wants to open his old job to a broad slate of candidates and provide stronger whistleblower protections for the office’s employees.

But the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research says the Ethics Review Board should consider a narrower set of qualifications to avoid politicizing the appointment, and that it should only field the most egregious claims from employees to preserve the new IG’s independence.

In a report out Monday, BGR outlines — and critiques — the proposed reforms for a city office tasked with rooting out waste and corruption that has now dealt with its own controversies twice in the past three years.

The Ethics Board’s plan, detailed publicly less than two months after Harper’s Oct. 31 resignation, follows employee complaints to the oversight board that Harper was frequently absent from work and “disengaged” with the job of keeping watch over city government.

BGR staffers said that the appointment of the next IG “will be a crucial one” given the problems over the past few years.

“The next inspector general must have the leadership ability to address personnel problems, turn around the office’s performance and revitalize its mission,” BGR staffers said in the report.

In hiring a new IG, the Ethics Board said it plans to issue a request for proposals for a search firm who can vet Harper’s replacement, a step the board did not take before it hired Harper in 2017.

Members also want to ask the City Council to amend the city’s code to allow public servants to apply for the IG’s job after only two years away from public service, instead of the four years those individuals must wait now. Inspectors general of other city or state agencies who have at least two years experience would be immediately eligible to apply for the job, however.

While BGR commended the plan to hire a search firm, BGR split with the board over some of the rules regarding time in government. While the good-government advocates supports letting state officials and other IG’s apply within those windows, it said that short a window for former and current city employees “would erode the OIG’s separation from city government and protection against conflicts of interest.” 

The window could open the job to a former deputy and interim IG who resigned in August 2018 when he was passed over for the permanent job, Howard Schwartz. At the time, Schwartz was seen by some observers as too tainted to hold the top job after he authored a report that accused one of his colleagues of approaching her job with bias.

Schwartz did not return a call for comment Monday.

Both Schwartz and his colleague, Nadienne Van Dyke, were potential candidates to replace former IG Ed Quatrevaux upon his retirement.

City Councilmember at-large Helena Moreno said Monday that while she generally supports BGR’s recommendation, the four-year waiting period for public servants is meant to ensure success for an official whose job it is to be politically neutral.

“I wouldn’t even mind if you never were in elected office,” Moreno said. “It’s about not being able to be influenced in any way by what’s happening in the city.”

The board might consider giving some special consideration to former employees of the office or of another investigative body, rather than a public servant who worked in one of the departments the IG is tasked with probing, Councilmember Joe Giarrusso added.

“A lot of times the backup quarterback is the one you want to be starting,” he said.

The city council hasn’t yet set a date to review the Ethics Review Board’s request.

BGR suggested offering confidentiality to employees who complain to the board about abuses of power, felony convictions, discrimination, or unprofessional or unethical conduct from the new IG. Other claims should be directed to an OIG human resources department or other manager.

BGR also said the board should create a committee to work with the firm and open that committee’s meetings to the public — another step the board did not take when it hired Harper.

The Ethics Board has budgeted up to $50,000 to hire a search firm. Board Chair Michael Cowan has said the board plans to pick a leader by February.

Whoever the candidate, the next IG should ensure that they are responsive to complaints, Moreno said.

“To me, that was the biggest failure of this past OIG,” she said. “Things were being brought to their attention, and nothing would happen… If you take care of issues years after the fact, what is the point?”

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