Mr. Cerasoli's morning

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The morning after issuing his interim report concerning the City of New Orleans' management of its administrative vehicle fleet (get your copy here), New Orleans Inspector General Robert A. Cerasoli is trudging down Baronne Street to his next appointment. He doesn't have a city car. In fact, he doesn't have a car, period. What he has is an office on St. Charles (at last), a small apartment in the CBD (furnished with an air mattress and the nondescript suits he favors), and the Le Pavillon hotel in between the two, where he seems to be known by everyone from the top-hatted doorman to the server who pours his coffee. It's 11:30 am, 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 not 10 feet down Baronne Street when he passes a New Breed cab. The driver's hand comes 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 and waves him through enthusiastically.

"Thank you." "Thank you!"

Cerasoli is running late for a TV stand-up and a subsequent radio interview. Since the 53-page report was sent to New Orleans CEO Brenda Hatfield and the City Council, the media and the public have been poring over its revelations. 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 have the number of city-owned vehicles pegged at 273. The mayor's office alone accounts for 73 of them; Mayor Ray Nagin himself has both a 2005 Lincoln Continental (insured value: $37,500) and a 2007 Ford Expedition ($33,042.25). The list contains SUVs, pickup trucks, sedans -- an administrative fleet valued at more than $4 million...and the mayor's budget, submitted to City Council, includes another $2 million for a "vehicle replacement program." And this is just Cerasoli's interim report; a more thorough version is forthcoming.

The inspector general pauses at Canal Street. "I'm supposed to be going to Dickie Brennan's," he says. "You know where that is?"

Which Dickie Brennan's? I wonder, but I say yes, and we keep walking.

"I stay out of the French Quarter," says Cerasoli. "People know my face. I just can't afford to be seen down there. Once I went down for lunch with a few people, including [U.S. attorney] Jim Letten, and we were going to a restaurant, and we passed Larry Flynt's Barely Legal club, right in front of the sign, and I said 'Jim, all it's going to take is one person with a cameraphone.'"

He's kidding. But not really. The IG -- who, famously, was not supplied with telephones or computer equipment for months after his arrival in New Orleans -- still operates largely on his own, using his personal cellphone (with his hometown Massachusetts area code) and an AOL address. Earlier, I had asked him what he did when he wasn't working, and Cerasoli seemed to grope for an answer...not evasively, as a politician might, but which a genuine sense of puzzlement.

"Reading?" I ask him, and he relaxes. "I read a lot," he says. (He had begun our conversation with a historical tale about Attila the Hun and the sacking of Venice.) Cerasoli had volunteered as a weight-training coach in the time between stepping down as the Massachusetts IG and taking the job in New Orleans, but when asked, he says, "I haven't lifted weights in more than a year."

Movies? I remind him that he once compared New Orleans to a Fellini movie, and he corrects me: "Fellini film." This segues into a discussion of City Hall, which segues into Nagin, and Cerasoli mentions that he's only met the mayor a few times. "Once was at Clearview Mall," he says. "The mayor was there with his wife, and I was there by myself."

I ask him if he's made any friends in the year-plus he's been in New Orleans.

"There are people," he says, carefully. "But you never know who you're talking to, you know?"

At Bourbon, he pauses again, seemingly not sure where to go, and I ask, "Do you know which Dickie Brennan's? There's the Palace Café, Bourbon House, the Steak House..."

"Iberville," he says. "It's on Iberville."

We head down Bourbon, past the picture windows of the Bourbon House, and a whole table of diners jumps up, waving at the man passing outside. He ducks his head and waves back -- not immodestly, but shyly.

Cerasoli has another report on the way -- this one, reportedly, having to do with the city's accursed crime-camera program -- that may see the desk of the CEO by year's end. But his next non-official duty is a holiday trip back to his hometown in Massachusetts. His mother passed away recently; he is eager to see his sister and his extended family. Then it's back to New Orleans and more investigations, more reports. "I get out of the office at 12:30, 1 in the morning," he says.

Down the sidewalk, in front of Dickie Brennan's Steak House, Lee Zurik of WWL-TV is waiting with a cameraman. Cerasoli gives a poised interview, but reiterates what he's been saying about the "Interim Report on the Management of the Administrative Vehicle Fleet" -- that he'd prefer not to comment, but to let the CEO, the City Council, and the public make up their own minds and take the actions they find appropriate. When it's over, Lee and I walk him into Dickie's, where Eric Asher of WIST-AM is set up for a live broadcast, waiting on the man on whom so many reform hopes are pinned.

"Merry Christmas," Cerasoli says, and sits down for what is (by my count) Cerasoli's fourth interview of the day, and probably not his last.

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