Robert A. Cerasoli is trudging down Baronne Street, slightly late for his next appointment. It's Dec. 17, and Cerasoli has just released his first report, 15 months after he became New Orleans' first-ever inspector general. It's 11:30 a.m., and he's already given several interviews, declined a radio interview due to time constraints, and wolfed down a plate of French toast with bacon.
"I forgot to eat yesterday," he explains. He's looking forward to a Christmas break with family in Massachusetts.
Cerasoli's report may have been a long time coming, but it's right on time: That day, the City Council will announce that it's vetoing many of the mayor's 2009 budget requests, including a $2 million line-item for take-home vehicles, the very subject of Cerasoli's "Interim Report on the Management of the Administrative Vehicle Fleet."
The report spells out why. City ordinances limit the number of take-home vehicles to 60 (50 for the mayor's office, 10 for the fire department), but Cerasoli's investigators found 273 vehicles. The mayor's office alone accounts for 73 of them; Nagin himself has both a 2005 Lincoln Continental (insured value: $37,500) and a 2007 Ford Expedition ($33,042.25). The list details a fleet valued at more than $4 million, and the mayor's 2009 budget includes another $2 million for a "vehicle replacement program."
"We didn't try to pose this as a 'gotcha' report," Cerasoli says mildly. "There are specific instances of abuse that are detailed, but we wanted to engage the city to say: 'You can change, you've got to keep better records.'"
On Tuesday this week, Nagin told WWL-TV that the 60-car limit was an "outdated ordinance." By Thursday, as the City Council attempted to finalize the 2009 budget, Nagin had backed down a bit. In a written statement to the council, he promised to respond in writing to Cerasoli's report by Jan. 30, "and not to purchase any administrative vehicles this budget year." The council is expected to vote again on the car program this week.
One question remains unanswered in Cerasoli's 53-page report: How does the city keep track of its vehicle fleet? On Excel sheets? In ledger books? On Galatoire's napkins?
"If you're thinking in practical information-technology terms — what you would conceptualize in an I.T. environmen — that does not exist in this city," Cerasoli says. The inspector general pauses. "Which is absolutely amazing for the amount of money they've spent for information technology."
WHEN CERASOLI arrived from Boston to set up New Orleans' first-ever Office of the Inspector General, he needed inventory tags — the little bar-code stickers that offices use to keep track of computers, monitors and other workplace valuables. He called City Hall to get some. It was one of his first, but not his last, surprises when it came to New Orleans city government.
"The city does not know all its assets," he says. "The city does not have a list of all its real property and all its movable property. They don't have inventories of anything. When we called people [at City Hall] to ask them where they get their inventory tags, they said they don't have any. They don't buy them.
"You can't steal what you don't own," he says wryly. "See what I mean?"
Cerasoli himself doesn't own much in New Orleans. After living at Le Pavillon hotel for a time when he first arrived in town, he upgraded to a small apartment in the CBD, where he sleeps on an air mattress. "I've got my luggage in the middle of the apartment, I've got my clothes on hangers, and that's it," he says. A few books. A few suits — black and baggy, more Ralph Nader than Ralph Lauren. "I had my car here, but I brought it home (to Massachusetts), and something happened with the catalytic converter, and I didn't bring it back," he says. "So I'm walking."
He also doesn't seem to have friends. "Friends?" he asks. "I think somebody in my position has to be careful of the friends they pick."
Not that Cerasoli wants for recognition in New Orleans. Leaving his breakfast, he's not 10 feet down Baronne Street when he passes a New Breed cab parked at the curb. "Hey!" says the driver, sticking his hand out the window for a shake. "Thank you," Cerasoli mutters, shyly but sincerely. The scenario repeats itself six times in four blocks: a pedestrian stops in his tracks and exclaims, "Great work!"; a motorist stops in the intersection at Perdido Street and waves him through enthusiastically.
"A funny story I'll tell you," he says. "We were invited to meet with the president of the United States. So you get the call from the Secret Service, and they tell you to meet in separate groups, then they take you where the president is going to be. You don't even know where you're going. We get to the Royal Sonesta (Hotel) and (U.S. Attorney) Jim Letten was in my group. We're going down Bourbon Street, and we walk by Larry Flynt's Barely Legal Club. And I said, 'Jim, let me tell you something. If someone with a cellphone takes a picture of you and I in front of Larry Flynt's Barely Legal Club, we'll have a tough time explaining that.'"
Cerasoli laughs, then turns serious. "I don't even go down to the French Quarter. A friend of mine came into town with the National Conference of State Legislators, and we were walking down in the French Quarter at night. I felt so uncomfortable, because there's all the police, and they know me, and the people ...
"To me, coming from Boston, it seems so decadent," he says softly. "Seeing all these people, doing all the things that they're doing."
CERASOLI grew up in Quincy, Mass., a New England seaside city that is part of the Boston metroplex, the birthplace of John Adams, John Quincy Adams and John Hancock. His father, a dockworker, died when Cerasoli was 10; his mother worked as a beautician. He grew up in a Catholic household but became a Baptist in 1995 and joined the Messiah Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Brockton, Mass. "I pray a lot," he says. He is reticent on the subject of family, though he mentions a sister in Quincy. He matriculated from American University in Washington, D.C., and worked as a financial investor at Drexel Burnham Lambert.
Cerasoli's public service began in 1975, when he ran for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He was subsequently re-elected five times. In 1991, then-Gov. William Weld tapped him for the state's Office of Inspector General, which had been founded 10 years earlier. Cerasoli became the state's second IG and had the right to introduce legislation (something he cannot do in New Orleans).
Cerasoli's most famous report during that tenure was on Boston's "Big Dig" subway project, a 3.5-mile tunnel, which had gone years past its deadline and billions overbudget. Cerasoli found design and safety flaws (confirmed in 2006 when part of the ceiling collapsed on motorists, killing a woman), and his report slammed several state officials, among them then-Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci. Cellucci responded by attempting to close Cerasoli's office, but the state legislature blocked the move.
One month after the report, the governor resigned suddenly, accepting an ambassadorship to Canada that had been proferred by President George W. Bush.
THE STRUGGLES OF CERASOLI'S first months in New Orleans were well-publicized: trouble getting computers, trouble getting telephones, trouble getting cooperation. As the months stretched into a year with no reports issued, some members of the public got restless, wondering what the inspector general was doing. The IG expressed his frustration with their dissatisfaction. "I don't need this job," he told The Gambit last March. "If I can't do it right, I won't do it."
Today, a year and a half into his tenure, the inspector general's office still doesn't have networked computers or a server. His office finally got a fax machine and a coffee maker a month ago. (When I first met him last summer, Cerasoli didn't even have a business card; he scrawled his AOL email address and Massachusetts cell phone number on the back of someone else's and gave that to me.)
"It's hard to express the frustration of it all," says the Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University and chairman of the New Orleans Ethics Review Board, which hired and oversees the inspector general. "We're just getting computer stuff now. It's an incredible testimony to how badly the system runs and works."
In Massachusetts, Cerasoli says, "People would respond to me. I could get documents, I could get information without having to issue a subpoena every time I needed something. People understood what the inspector general did, they cooperated with the inspector general. ... I don't think the administration understands our role in terms of the separation of powers." Nowhere was this more apparent than last August. When the New Orleans Home Ownership scandal broke, City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields sent Cerasoli a letter asking him to "provide a direct communication to my office when you initiate an investigation."
"I said, 'No, I would not inform you, and you cannot keep the records secret under the guise of an investigation, because they are public documents,'" Cerasoli says.
Did Moses-Fields act on her own volition, or had she been ordered to make the request from higher up?
"I have no idea," Cerasoli says. "I don't deal with anyone in the mayor's office. I've met the mayor on exactly five occasions — twice in City Hall, once at the cinemas out at Clearview. The people in my office deal with (New Orleans CEO) Brenda Hatfield, but I don't deal with anybody else. I don't really have to."
BOB CERASOLI had no intention of coming to New Orleans. In 2004, he accepted a job as director of fraud investigation for the city of Philadelphia. Then he told his 91-year-old mother. "She said 'I'll die, and I'll never forgive you,'" Cerasoli says. "'This is the time you promised to give me. You did your time in public service. You've got to spend this time with me.'" So he rescinded his acceptance, went home and spent months with his mother, listening to her stories and getting them down on an old tape recorder. She developed ischemic colitis, and her health failed quickly.
In April 2007, Cerasoli got a call from Leonard Odom, a friend in the Association of Inspectors General, urging him to apply for the position in New Orleans. "I said, 'Len, get off my back. My mother's dying,'" Cerasoli says. Odom was insistent. To get his friend to stop bothering him, Cerasoli sent his resumé on the last possible day. His mother died shortly after. He says a chance comment at her funeral changed his life's direction: "This woman from childhood comes up to me and says, 'Bob, I just heard you give your mother's eulogy. I gotta tell you, I think you shouldn't stay here in Quincy. Go someplace in the United States. Take that knowledge you've earned and give it to somebody who needs it.'"
He went to New Orleans and met with the ethics board for an interview. "I thought about my mother," he says. "I thought about the woman in the church, and I thought about the stuff I said to myself when I sat in front of my TV as Katrina was occurring. Like a million other people in the United States, I wished I could do something to help them. And without even talking salary, I said to myself, 'Yeah. I'll do it.'"
On June 12, 12 years after New Orleans had voted the office into law, Cerasoli was offered the job as the city's first-ever inspector general. (In October 2008, voters made the office permanent by more than 70 percent of the vote and gave the IG's office three-quarters of 1 percent of the city's operating budget.)
Asked if there's anything he likes about New Orleans, Cerasoli doesn't mention food or music. "The people," he says. "There are a lot of people who love this city, a lot of people want to see change. But nothing changes. I am hoping I can be a catalyst, but oftentimes there is so much pressure on me that it is humbling and awe-inspiring."
"People see hope, and they see it with good reason," Ethics Review Board Chairman Wildes says. "More reports are coming. Things are going to start happening ... and things are going to get tougher for him."
What does a man do in that situation? "I just pray," Cerasoli says. "I think about my mother. I pray to God.
"It's hard sometimes."
There is a postscript to this story. On Dec. 23, while visiting family for Christmas, Cerasoli underwent surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Needham, Mass., to have some tissue removed from his neck: one a sebaceous cyst, the other a "growth the size of a lemon." ("I can verify this," he wrote in an email, "because I asked to see it after it was removed.") The growth was taken for biopsy. "I'd been putting this off for a while, since before I came to New Orleans," he says.
When we spoke last week, he had not gotten the biopsy results. "It's all in God's hands," he said.
Cerasoli plans to return to New Orleans this week to resume work. There's a lot to do. A more complete version of the city-car report is forthcoming, as well as a report on the city's infamous crime-camera system. Cerasoli says a long-promised, 24-hour tipline where citizens can report malfeasance should be up and running by the middle of this month. Wildes says Cerasoli also has agreed to partner with architects of the new schools building plan "to prevent the crap from happening before it gets started."
Cerasoli says he does not intend to divulge or make any public statement about his diagnosis because he doesn't want it to interfere with the performance of his job. "It's all in God's hands," he repeated.