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A rogue department

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On Friday, July 4, at 7 p.m., a terse memo was issued by Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office, stating, "Malachi Hull, who has served as Taxicab and For Hire Bureau Director since June 2011, is no longer employed by the City." Late Friday "news dumps" typically occur when a public body wants to bury bad or embarrassing news, but Hull's departure wasn't so much bad tidings as it was long overdue. That was the really bad news: The mayor took way too long to get rid of Hull.

  As for the timing, it seemed designed to get ahead of an administrative investigation and report by the City of New Orleans Office of Inspector General (OIG). That report, dated April 24, was disseminated last week in the wake of Hull's exit, and it painted a picture of an office both incompetently managed and dangerously out of control. That conclusion struck a particularly ironic note because, in 2011, Landrieu brought in Hull from Atlanta (where he previously ran that city's taxi bureau) to get the troubled department into shape after federal investigators began looking into charges of bribery and corruption.

  The OIG report of its investigation into the taxi bureau under Hull's leadership was thorough — and damning. It found that between August 2011 and February 2012, 80 percent of owners of Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience (CPNCs, the city permit that for-hire vehicles are required to have) paid substantially fewer fees than required by law. The report also noted that the department still held approximately 100 uncashed money orders and cashiers' checks that remained attached to documents in the Taxicab Bureau's files — even after the OIG previously had alerted Hull to the issue. Elsewhere, the report noted that one CPNC owner owed the city $62,370 in fees — money that finally was collected 18 months after the OIG told Hull about the delinquency.

  The sloppiness and incompetence didn't end there. "OIG Investigators found CPNC documents under desks, behind desks, behind file cabinets, in the storage room, in two different recycling bins, in the employee break room and filed in the wrong CPNC files," read the report. "On at least one occasion that the OIG is aware of, an Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney was unable to locate documents needed for trial."

  Sadly, that wasn't the worst of it. Last year, two taxicab inspectors were involved in separate incidents that showed Hull oversaw a rogue department — and both incidents were recorded. In one, inspector Robert Blake pepper-sprayed and handcuffed a cab driver in the French Quarter. When a tape of the incident was released, the city dropped its charges against the driver and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro ultimately filed aggravated battery charges against Blake. The cab driver, Emmanuel Esterlin, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city earlier this month.

  The second incident was even more outrageous. Last November, tour guide Wendy Bosma was leading several dozen tourists on a Lower French Quarter sidewalk tour when taxi inspector Wilton Joiner demanded to see her license and accused her of leading her tour group too close to another tour group. (The Taxicab Bureau also oversees tour guides.) According to members of the tour group, Joiner slammed Bosma against a car and twisted her arm viciously (photographs taken in the next days show her black and blue). The outraged tour group approached a New Orleans police officer to file a complaint against Joiner, but the officer merely replied, "If you want to make a complaint against him, you need to make it at City Hall." The cop then strolled away to talk to another man on the scene. That man was Hull, who was standing nearby and made no move to stop Joiner.

  Even after more than 100 people protested at City Hall, the Landrieu Administration took no immediate action against Hull. He wasn't let go until two and a half months after the OIG's office reported, "Hull purposely allowed Joiner and Blake to continue to arrest, detain and pepper spray individuals without proper training, thereby endangering the public." The report concluded that both incidents were "facilitated by Hull's gross negligence and neglect of duty." They also have the potential to cost the city precious dollars in legal judgments.

  Clearly, Hull was not the person Landrieu thought he was when the mayor hired him. While any executive can make mistakes when choosing department managers, the mayor owes the public a thorough explanation — not a Friday evening press release — of why it took so long to get rid of Hull.


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