When Ray Nagin first ran for mayor in 2002, he campaigned on the twin promises of transparency and integrity. After last week's revelation that Hizzoner's vaunted crime camera program is mired in wasteful if not corrupt contracting practices — which came on the heels of news that his administration destroyed hundreds if not thousands of public records in the midst of a federal investigation — it's clear the mayor has lost his "good government" patina. This administration is neither transparent nor honest, and the blame falls squarely on the mayor for creating and nurturing a culture of arrogance at City Hall.
When it comes to honoring public records requests, Nagin arguably has the worst record ever among New Orleans mayors. His administration routinely flouts the state law requiring public records to be turned over within three days of a request, often dragging its feet for months. Frustrated at the administration's stonewalling, WWL-TV reporter Lee Zurik sued Nagin, asking a judge to order him to turn over his 2008 calendar and emails. By the time the case got a hearing, Zurik's public records request had gone unfulfilled for more than two months.
Then came the astounding revelation — in open court — that most of Nagin's calendar and emails had been "erased" from a city computer server. The reason offered by the City Attorney's Office? The server was running low on space, and the digital information sought by Zurik had been erased as part of a routine practice of freeing up server space — despite a state law that specifically requires public records to be preserved for at least three years. The mayor's failure to preserve and turn over the requested records is a clear violation of state law — and possibly federal law, in light of the ongoing federal investigation into New Orleans Affordable Homeownership Corp. As if to add insult to injury, the mayor's office later turned over limited calendar entries that were so "redacted" (read: blacked out) as to be meaningless.
It gets worse. Last week, it was disclosed that city Sanitation Director Veronica White had turned over three years' worth of City Council emails to attorney Tracie Washington in response to an emailed "public records request" that inexplicably went to White instead of the council or the City Attorney's Office. White has engaged in a running feud with some City Council members and even threatened legal action against them. By using a public records request as a legal subterfuge to obtain council records — some of which no doubt contain privileged and confidential information — White violated protocols set forth by her boss, Ray Nagin, who months earlier directed all public records requests to be sent to the City Attorney's Office. She was aided in her efforts by Nagin's Office of Technology, which somehow was able to retrieve the council records for her with blinding speed. All of this, of course, belies Nagin's claim that his 2008 emails and calendar had to be purged in the name of saving space.
Meanwhile, the city's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report last week excoriating Nagin's Office of Technology for failing to follow protocols in connection with the city's crime camera program. The technology office's failures were so glaring that the OIG notified the U.S. Attorney's Office of "potential violations of federal law." The report alleges "self-dealing" by a subcontractor with business ties to a former chief technology officer (read: Greg Meffert), who hired his former colleagues from the private sector and, according to the OIG, "used subcontracts to evade open competition for professional service contracts." Meffert was one of Nagin's top assistants during his tenure in city government. An audit commissioned by the administration reached similar conclusions.
There's an old saying that a fish rots from the head. At City Hall these days, there's plenty that smells rotten around the mayor's office. We hope U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell will move swiftly to investigate every suspicious contract and every failure to follow the state's public records law — and prosecute to the fullest anyone who has violated federal or state laws. Only then might the culture of arrogance and the stench of corruption leave City Hall.