Robert Cerasoli, who was named the city's first inspector general in 2007 after a nationwide search, announced Thursday night he was stepping down immediately due to health reasons. (For more on Cerasoli, see The Gambit's Jan. 12 cover story, "Being Bob Cerasoli," at Bestofneworleans.com.)
On Dec. 23, while visiting family for Christmas, Cerasoli underwent surgery in Needham, Mass., to have some tissue removed from his neck: one a sebaceous cyst, the other a "growth the size of a lemon," he said. The growth was taken for biopsy. At the time, Cerasoli said he would have no public comment as to the results.
"Some stuff came back that was good," says the Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University and head of the city's Ethics Review Board, "and in the process they discovered some other things."
Following his resignation, Cerasoli left New Orleans immediately and headed back to his hometown of Quincy, Mass. His first assistant, Leonard Odom, has been appointed in the interim by Wildes and the ethics review board while they begin a search for a permanent inspector general. Wildes calls Odom "incredibly qualified."
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. His most famous report during that tenure was on Boston's "Big Dig" subway project, a 3.5-mile tunnel that had gone years past its deadline and billions over budget.
His 17-month tenure in New Orleans was famously marked with frustrations, from his inability to get proper office equipment to skirmishes with City Hall on matters large and small. "Bob cannot do something halfway," said Wildes, "and [given his health] he just felt as if he couldn't give the job his full attention and do the job the way it needs to be done."
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who had a close working relationship with Cerasoli, said the last time he'd seen the inspector general was Jan. 20, when he and an assistant had been at Cerasoli's office. They had worked and watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama. "Even at that time, Bob was sharing with us his concerns about his health and his fatigue," Letten says. "But I didn't see that he'd reached critical mass at all. This was a surprise — and a disappointment."
On a personal level, Wildes says Cerasoli's resignation is hard to take: "We do have a personal relationship. And I'm not blowing smoke when I say that we are so much better off now than we were two years ago, when this would have been unthinkable.
"Look, I'm not Mary Poppins," Wildes says. "When I look at the staffing in the office and the people who are doing the work, I'm confident every investigation is going to continue. I'm more upset and concerned about Bob than I am about the office. He's built us a great organization."
Letten was more specific. "In a short time, he has done more than you can see on the surface. He has a lot in the pipeline, and that will continue."