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Arrogance and Hypocrisy

Even by Mayor Ray Nagin's low standards of governance, this has been a remarkable month. On Feb. 4, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance requiring mayoral committees that vet professional service contractors to follow the state's open meetings law. The committees, appointed by Nagin, have heretofore deliberated in private. That morning, Nagin told WVUE-TV the ordinance was unnecessary and sneered, "I'm just going to let them pass their little ordinance." The council did so, echoing the opinion of state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who had ruled twice that committee meetings are subject to the open meetings law.

  The mayor had other plans. He vetoed the "little ordinance," and last Monday, Feb. 16, he went a step further by publishing a notice in The Times-Picayune announcing an executive order to "suspend" the selection review panels "to prevent further delay of recovery efforts." Some on the council howled, but legally Hizzoner was totally within his rights. The City Charter plainly gives the mayor authority to award professional services contracts without public bids or public input. The committees that Nagin voluntarily created could be dissolved at the mayor's pleasure. Councilman Arnie Fielkow vowed to override the mayor's veto, but once the committees were disbanded, the whole point became moot. Fielkow couldn't even muster the five votes needed to override Nagin's veto.

  Nagin was not through playing obstructionist. Last Tuesday, Orleans Parish Civil Court Judge Rose Ledet heard arguments in a public records lawsuit that WWL-TV reporter Lee Zurik had filed against Nagin. In early January, Zurik sought to obtain the mayor's 2008 emails and calendar, which clearly are public records. State law requires such records to be turned over within three days. In typical fashion, the Nagin Administration stonewalled, flouted the law and otherwise ignored Zurik's request for more than a month. Deputy City Attorney Ed Washington told Ledet that most of the emails and the mayor's 2008 calendar had been erased — an unbelievable admission that, if true, points to a blatant violation of the Louisiana Public Records Act. The act requires all public records to be maintained for at least three years. On Wednesday, the administration turned over a partial calendar with much of the mayor's schedule redacted without explanation, and on Thursday the station responded by filing a contempt motion against the administration in Ledet's court, citing Louisiana public records law.

  Erasing the calendar and emails also violated Nagin's own policy recommendations. In a May 2008 memo outlining an acceptable-use policy for City Hall electronic communications, the mayor's Office of Technology warned of "deep legal ramifications" if proper procedures are not in place for preserving electronic records. The office recommended that administrative correspondence be stored for four years and noted that the city "maintains backup tapes from the email server and once a quarter a set of tapes is taken out of the rotation and they are moved offsite. No effort will be made to remove email from the offsite backup tapes."

  So where are the emails?

  That's a question District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro ought to be asking. Destroying public records is a criminal offense. Moreover, computer experts are virtually unanimous in their assertions that even "erased" data can be retrieved — if the hard drives are secured in time. We also wonder if federal investigators might be interested in these developments. It's no secret that at least one major investigation into this administration's contracting practices is under way.

  Even as his administration was violating state public records laws at a record clip, the mayor blithely claimed to be running "the most transparent administration probably in the city's history." On one level, we suppose he's right — this administration's arrogance and hypocrisy on the issue of open government is truly "transparent."

  What is equally plain to see is Nagin's utter contempt for the council and the rule of law. For example, last week also saw the mayor scoffing at what he called an "outdated" ordinance limiting take-home cars to 50. According to an Inspector General's Office report, the Nagin Administration has more than 270 take-home cars. The IGO report specifically excluded take-home police cars, yet last week the mayor tried to obfuscate the issue by claiming the ordinance undermines public safety.

  Enough is enough. The mayor has the right to award professional services contracts as he sees fit, but he does not get to pick and choose which laws he must obey. We hope local and federal investigators will immediately investigate this administration's callous — and illegal — destruction of public records and prosecute those responsible.

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