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The Feds in City Hall

Maybe all these unanswered questions explain why the feds moved in.


It's been an amazing few weeks at City Hall in the arena of "transparency." So many stories have broken in so many areas that it's difficult to keep up. On one front, the City Council and Mayor Ray Nagin crossed swords over enforcement of the state Open Meetings Law as it pertains to the mayor's awarding of professional services contracts. On another front, WWL-TV reporter Lee Zurik dragged Nagin and City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields into court for their failure to follow the state Public Records Law. In that matter, Judge Rose Ledet fined Nagin and Moses-Fields personally for "unreasonable and arbitrary" violations of the law.

  On yet another front, attorney Tracie Washington sought and received (in record time for this administration) several years' worth of City Council emails from city Sanitation Director Veronica White. The vast majority of those emails are public records, and Washington has every right to get them — but the records were not reviewed beforehand for possible confidential (and legally protected) correspondence. In court, the council and the administration wound up on the same side asking Judge Lloyd Medley to prohibit Washington, at least temporarily, from posting the emails online or otherwise sharing them.

  Then, just when it seemed that things couldn't get stranger, federal agents armed with grand jury subpoenas seized White's computer at City Hall. The frenzy of activity has produced a field day for the local rumor mill. Without commenting on unsubstantiated reports, there are enough unanswered questions out there that an effort to connect the dots is in order. In our view, the key dates involved in the unfolding "E-maelstrom" (credit blogger Eli Ackerman for giving the controversy a name) reveal a lot more than mere coincidence — and raise even more questions.

  • WWL-TV's Zurik filed his public records request shortly after 9 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2008, seeking all of the mayor's emails for that calendar year. Approximately two hours later, Washington emailed sanitation director White a public records request for two-and-a-half years worth of City Council emails. White has no authority over council records — but she has engaged in a running battle with some of the council members whose emails Washington was seeking. Coincidence? Council members and their attorneys don't think so.

  • In a sworn statement during the first week of March, City Attorney Moses-Fields said that White notified her about the Dec. 3 public records request from Washington "some time during the next two months." At the end of those two months — on Feb. 2 — Moses-Fields met with Chief Administrative Officer Brenda Hatfield and interim city technology officer Harrison Boyd to discuss Washington's request. Moses-Fields told Boyd to put the council emails on CDs and give them to her so she could review them — even though the council has its own outside attorney in its running battles with the mayor, for whom Moses-Fields works. Moses-Fields then took two weeks to notify the council's attorney that a public records request for the emails had been filed. Why so many delays, particularly in notifying the council and its attorney? In fact, why would Moses-Fields discuss the public records request at all — let alone first — with Hatfield and Boyd? And why would Moses-Fields think that she is the proper attorney to review council emails when she knows the council has its own attorney for possible litigation against her boss, the mayor?

  • On Feb. 28, almost four weeks after meeting with Hatfield and Moses-Fields, Boyd told the city attorney that "at some point prior to that day," he gave White a set of CDs containing the council's emails. Boyd is not an attorney, but as interim technology chief he is responsible (as are Moses-Fields, Hatfield and others in the administration) for following a mayoral directive to notify the City Attorney's office within hours of receiving a public records request. Why didn't White follow protocol? Why didn't Boyd? Why has no action been taken against them?

  Maybe all these unanswered questions explain why the feds moved in. Then again, maybe they just want to protect an ongoing investigation on another front. As citizens try to connect the dots of this vexing set of coincidences, we can hope that federal prosecutors will give us the whole picture soon enough.

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