Kenner — Transparency, accountability and public involvement were the focus of all three finalists for Jefferson Parish’s new inspector general position during extended interviews on Wednesday.
In pushing their case for the job, finalists presented the parish’s Ethics and Compliance Commission with their plans for attacking problems that came to a head with the resignation and conviction of former Parish President Aaron Broussard and several of his underlings. That corruption led voters to create the Inspector General’s Office in 2011 with a dedicated, independent budget of about $1 million to $1.5 million.
The commission received nearly 40 applications for the position and whittled that list down to finalists: David McClintock, the Baltimore inspector general; Nicholas Schuler Jr., a deputy inspector general for the Chicago Board of Education; and Richard David Holmgren, the deputy inspector general for inspections and evaluations for the U.S. Treasury Department.
Commissioners interviewed each candidate for about two-and-a-half hours in both a public session and private session. Questions in the public session focused on the candidates’ plans for structuring the office, encouraging public involvement and working with federal law enforcement agencies. Chairwoman Carroll Suggs said the commission understands the magnitude of its task.
“This is a really big day for Jefferson Parish,” she said.
Nicholas Schuler, a former police officer, said that coming from Chicago he has experience with a culture where political corruption has become entrenched. He will use investigations to improve policies and procedures, even when the investigations don’t result in criminal charges.
“It sounds like there is a need,” Schuler said about Jefferson Parish. “I believe in the mission.”
Schuler discussed a recent investigation in which his office uncovered fraud in federal free lunch applications tied to the idea of steering other federal dollars to schools based on their reported poverty rates. The public needs to know that issues will be investigated, and residents need to get the results of those investigations to hold elected officials accountable, Schuler said.
“I’ve really come to appreciate the value that an independent voice can give to government,” Schuler said. “People have to know what you’re doing … I think what you’re striving for is that (the public) will hold the elected official’s feet to the fire.”
Richard Holmgren, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said an inspector general should use audits and procedures to reduce the need for investigations. In fact, Holmgren said, his first task if chosen would be to do a broad risk assessment to determine the parish’s vulnerability, and he expects to hold off on hiring many investigators initially.
“If it gets to the point where you have to do investigations, it means the other part of the process failed,” said Holmgren, who added that fairness is paramount. “When I’m doing an investigation, I honestly don’t care if it’s substantiated or unsubstantiated. Is it fair? Is it unbiased?”
He said he’s drawn to the Jefferson Parish job because it presents a chance to get in on the ground floor and shape the agency from scratch. He touted his extensive contacts in the inspector general community as something that will help make the creation of the new agency smoother.
“I’ve got the experience putting an inspector general (office) together from the ground up, putting it together from scratch,” Holmgren said. “There’s a lot of opportunity to leverage the good work that’s out there.”
McClintock, a former police officer, stressed the need for an inspector genera, and his employees to be “malleable.” He said that means seeking employees who can handle both audits and investigations, which will provide more efficiency and allow for broader actions.
“I’ve found that I’ve been very successful recruiting people who are talented in more areas,” McClintock he said. “One shouldn’t get too hung up on titles.”
McClintock said the Jefferson Parish job is enticing because of the independent budget, which he doesn’t have in Baltimore.
He mentioned that because of his department’s size and budget, he’s had to be reactive and creative. He discussed an audit regarding citywide credit cards that found $900,000 in overspending and investigations that discovered employees who received city pay while being in jail and on military leave. He’s also partnered with departments to fund positions to monitor those departments.
McClintock, who often tweets out each new investigation, said watching public complaints create big changes is gratifying.
“If you don’t want to read about it on the front page, don’t do it … Watching the impact of that on government has been huge,” he said. “The most important thing is changing the system.”
Each candidate provided some personal touches in the hope of buttressing their cases for the job. Holmgren brought the parish’s 300-plus page budget to reference; Schuler came with a budget for his office already developed; and McClintock brought his entire family down to get a feel for the parish. In return, the commission gave each candidate an official Zulu coconut to take home.
Metropolitan Crime Commission director Rafael Goyeneche III sat through the interviews and said each candidate was impressive. The key will be finding which one is the right fit based on the person’s philosophy and the parish’s needs.
“I think they set up a process that will allow them to identify the most qualified applicant for this position,” he said.