Persica: Construction investigation builds nothing  

So, this is how we do good government in Louisiana: When an agency investigating public corruption believes it’s being stonewalled, it packs up its files and goes home.

That’s what happened last week when the New Orleans Office of Inspector General terminated its agreement to provide a construction fraud deterrence program to the Recovery School District.

In a letter three weeks ago to state Education Superintendent John White, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said his office is ending its agreement with RSD, which White ultimately has jurisdiction over, because of “consistent breaches of the requirements of the agreement.”

The OIG Construction Fraud Unit became operational 11 months ago when an assistant inspector general was hired to head up the unit, which was set up under the agreement with RSD. The unit was charged with the responsibility of preventing and detecting fraud, waste and the abuse of billions in post-Katrina recovery money from the federal government.

White answered Quatrevaux’s complaint by agreeing to end the arrangement between RSD and OIG. But he also rejected the charge that the district had done anything wrong. He even went so far as to try to rebut some of the findings of an OIG report on school construction projects that had not yet been released to the public.

In the old crime movies of the 1930s and ’40s, after the cops had surrounded the suspected bad guys, the chief would get on a megaphone an issue an ultimatum. “Come out with your hands up,” he would say. “Or we’re coming in.”

If they did those movies Louisiana style, the chief would probably say, “Come out, or we’re going to leave.”

Fortunately, the RSD is not the OIG’s main charge. The construction probe was the result of a side deal in which the Inspector General, RSD and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness agreed to give the OIG oversight to make sure that RSD school construction projects in Orleans Parish were being done without waste or fraud.

However, since both sides have now agreed to end that arrangement, it is dead. But that should do nothing to affect OIG’s main responsibility, which is outlined in the city charter and an enabling ordinance.

According to the ordinance, the IG has oversight authority over the mayor and city council, all city departments and agencies, boards and commissions. It has access to public records, contracts, computer hard drives, emails, instant messages and more. It has subpoena power, and it is considered a law enforcement agency under the ordinance. Its power extends to “any individual, partnership, corporation, or organization involved in any financial capacity or official capacity” with the city.

That’s the law, and it’s a pretty strong one. But the RSD is not a city agency; it’s a creature of the state. The inspector general’s oversight of school construction spending didn’t come about because of the law, but through a voluntary agreement between Quatrevaux’s office, the state education officials and GOHSEP.

It takes two to tango, and since one party to the agreement didn’t want to dance, the other side had no choice but to keep its happy feet still and let the agreement die.

Meanwhile, the Orleans Parish School Board — another state entity, not a municipal one — claims the OIG’s office has no dominion over it. As a result, Quatrevaux has been stymied, at least for now, in his attempts to do anything there.

Good government, Louisiana style — it’s different here.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.