NOPD review disputes overbilling allegations

A New Orleans police review of the city inspector general’s criminal probe of high-ranking officers’ off-duty work reviewing traffic tickets found the IG’s investigation was based on incomplete information, and rejected the charge that a handful of officers were involved in an “overbilling scheme” that ultimately would have cost the city money.

The investigation by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office focused on a police detail involving the review of the city’s red-light camera tickets. The detail sparked intense controversy two years ago when it was revealed that the work of reviewing the unpopular tickets had been farmed out to off-duty officers — some of whom had close personal ties with NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas. The job was helmed, for instance, by Police Commander Edwin Hosli; Serpas is the godfather of Hosli’s child.

The public was outraged to learn that well-placed officers were making $35 an hour to review the already-despised camera tickets, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu quickly issued an “emergency suspension” of Hosli. The mayor said he was upset by the “poor and questionable judgment of using city funds to pay off-duty police officers to perform police duties.”

But Hosli, who before his suspension had been the commander of the French Quarter-based 8th District, was quietly reinstated to full duty by the New Orleans Police Department on May 24, after both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office determined there was insufficient evidence gathered by the IG’s office to pursue criminal charges.

One question left open in the probe’s wake was whether the NOPD had considered whether Hosli and other officers had broken the department’s administrative rules. A report by Public Integrity Bureau investigator Rannie Mushatt, who heads the criminal division of the NOPD’s internal affairs unit, found that Hosli did break one rule: creating a company through which he managed the off-duty detail, for which he was suspended three days. No other rules were broken, Mushatt found.

While Landrieu publicly critiqued the practice, both Serpas and his predecessor, Warren Riley, had signed off on the idea of using off-duty officers to review the tickets because the NOPD lacked the manpower to handle the workload. Serpas later changed his mind, assigning traffic division officers to the task.

An investigation by Quatrevaux’s office raised other questions about the detail, finding that Hosli and other officers possibly overbilled for their work. The investigation by the inspector general’s chief of investigations, William Bonney, found that Hosli overbilled by $2,000 from September 2010 to early February 2011. Other officers potentially overbilled by amounts ranging from $150 to almost $2,500, he found.

In a letter to NOPD Deputy Superintendent Arlinda Westbrook, Howard Schwartz, of the Inspector General’s Office, said Bonney “uncovered a potential fraudulent overbilling scheme.”

However, Mushatt’s review of Bonney’s work rejected that contention. Instead, Mushatt found that the company that ran the traffic camera program provided insufficiently specific information to run the kind of analysis that Bonney performed on the ticket data. For example, the company, American Traffic Solutions, was unable to provide exact “log on” and “log off” data for when officers accessed its computer network to review the photos of tickets issued by cameras. Mushatt argued that meant Bonney had to extrapolate based on other data.

Mushatt noted that Bonney’s analysis of the amount of time officers spent logged onto the computer system essentially concluded that nobody billed correctly for their time. While the analysis found that five officers overbilled, it also found that 15 officers underbilled.

“It is clear from the OIG investigation that the lack of complete and accurate management reports of officer’s activity on the ATS computer system as to accurate ‘log on’ and ‘log off’ times, that Investigator Bonney had to ‘create’ a set of mathematical formulas and assumptions to create the spreadsheet and the subsequent conclusions drawn from that analysis,” Mushatt wrote.

“In fact, in the end, these assumptions and calculations resulted in a spreadsheet that concluded that NO OFFICERS working this detail had accurate billing practices. This cannot be true, and speaks to the limitations beyond the control of any investigation into this matter.”

Hosli inked a settlement in early June with the city’s Civil Service Department, which allowed him to receive back pay for the 88 days he didn’t work due to Landrieu’s emergency suspension.

Strangely, Mushatt’s report is dated June 13, after Hosli was reinstated and the settlement was signed by city attorneys.

When asked why the administrative investigation was not done until after Hosli was returned to full duty, Remi Braden, an NOPD spokesperson, said the officer’s reassignment was because of the ongoing criminal probes, not the potential administrative violations.