In the wake of Mayor Ray Nagin's stunning declaration of "war against municipal corruption" on July 22, former Mayor Marc Morial and City Council member Marlin Gusman both have expressed shock at the scope of the investigation.
Indeed, after the initial New Orleans police probe resulted in 84 arrest warrants that shook the taxicab industry and closed three brake tag stations, the probe widened again last week to include the Department of Safety & Permits. And, sources say, agents of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service have joined the FBI, state auditors and New Orleans police in poring over city documents.
The roiling investigation is also expected to cut through the Department of Property Management, which maintains city buildings and facilities, as well as the Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development. Meanwhile, a state legislative auditor's probe of the Department of Public Works is proceeding, sources say.
So how did the Morial Administration -- which won international acclaim for its signature clean-up of brutality and corruption at NOPD -- miss widespread fraud and bribery at City Hall? Morial, who left office May 6, and Councilmember Gusman, his Chief Administrative Officer from 1994-2000, both told reporters from around the nation that they forwarded any allegations of wrongdoing to the city Office of Municipal Investigation (OMI).
OMI? Local reporters were flummoxed. OMI has not conducted a major investigation since 1998, when the watchdog agency released a controversial, two-part report on an exhaustive probe that accused top brass at NOPD of possible state ethics violations and "mis-classification" of crime reports.
Shortly thereafter, OMI director Peter Munster died in a traffic accident while vacationing in New Mexico. City records show he was not replaced at OMI until late 2000 -- almost two and a half years later. By May 1, 2002, OMI had just two investigators, down from five when Morial took office eight years ago.
In her exclusive interview following the initial raids at City Hall, WWL-TV anchor Angela Hill asked Morial to respond to an allegation concerning his administration's oversight of OMI:
Hill: "Raphael Goyeneche (president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission) says Peter Munster complained bitterly that his investigations were watered down by CAO Marlin Gusman."
Morial: "We need to be careful about what a dead man [allegedly] said. We need to be extremely careful. "
Indeed. Rather than rely solely on fading memories from the veteran agent's friends and foes, Gambit Weekly opened Munster's previously unpublished files, obtained shortly before his death.
On May 1, 1998, OMI Director Peter Louis Munster took one of the most extraordinary steps of his 28 years in law enforcement.
He asked for protection.
Munster, 53, feared for his job. At the time, Munster had served as the head of OMI for nearly 13 years, following 15 years as a special agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He retired from DEA on a disability pension following a job-related car crash, sources say. He took the OMI job for $30,000 a year.
Appointed by the late Mayor Dutch Morial in 1985, Munster admired the elder Morial's hands-off approach to OMI -- an approach Marc Morial said he duplicated. Yet Munster's personal papers suggest he found more difficult going under Marc Morial.
After four years under Marc Morial, Munster wanted to confide in someone at City Hall. He chose an administration critic who had been exonerated after an OMI investigation: J. Michael Doyle, director of the city Civil Service Department and custodian of the civil service's confidential whistleblower protection files for employees who fear retaliation for reporting possible wrong-doing to outside authorities.
In 1995, in response to allegations by an assistant to Mayor Marc Morial, OMI undertook a very public investigation of Doyle's dining and travel habits as a member of the city pension board. Doyle countered that the OMI probe was "politically motivated," noting that the mayor's two appointees to the pension board attended the same functions but were never investigated. Doyle was ultimately cleared by the civil service commission.
Three years later, Munster apologized for the OMI probe in a one-on-one meeting, Doyle recalled last week. "He came in at the beginning of 1998 to apologize for investigating me on what he called totally bogus, trumped-up charges," Doyle said. "He said it was the biggest abuse of authority he had seen in all his years of law enforcement. When he showed up in my office, I thought he was going to investigate me again. I was floored when he apologized."
On May 1, 1998, Munster returned to Doyle's office, armed with a manila folder containing a sheaf of documents. He handed Doyle the folder. Inside was Munster's written request for whistleblower protection.
Doyle last week acknowledged that both Munster and OMI Special Agent Raymond C. Burkart filed for whistleblower protection. Citing confidentiality restrictions and the advice of the civil service commission attorney, Doyle refused to discuss the contents of either filing. Burkart could not be reached by presstime, and sources close to the agent say he will not comment.
In Munster's whistleblower filing, the OMI director stated he feared "possible retaliation for reporting what I believed were violations of law." He also specified the nature of the feared retaliation: "By threat, I don't feel my life has been threatened, but I do fear for my job and my livelihood."
Specifically, Munster alleged that his boss, CAO Marlin Gusman, had threatened his job for releasing an OMI investigative report of NOPD to the media. The OMI probe was initially based on an anonymous 1997 complaint from "Lobo" against NOPD that alleged the downgrading of police crime reports and statistics released to the public and the acceptance of cellular phones by certain members of the department. The probe found that Police Superintendent Richard Pennington and Assistant Superintendent Ronal Serpas may have violated state ethics laws by accepting free cell phones provided by a private company.
The OMI probe found no evidence that police were "cooking" the crime statistics -- but made a number of administrative recommendations for promulgating crime statistics distributed to the public. The key OMI recommendation was for a "complete audit" of crime figures released to the public that would be verified by university faculty in computer science, mathematics and public administration.
"This was an exhaustive investigation involving the examining of thousands of documents by Senior Special Agent Raymond Burkart," Munster wrote in his May 1, 1998 filing.
In March 1998, Gusman requested changes in the report, which the CAO later said was full of errors. Munster complied, and the corrected file was returned to the CAO on April 1, 1998.
The next day, Munster wrote in his whistleblower file, he advised Gusman that a reporter from Gambit Weekly had called the OMI director to say that "OMI was over its time limit for investigating" its case against NOPD. Munster also reported similar telephone inquiries from the Metropolitan Crime Commission and several of the officers involved in the case.
On April 23, 1998, Munster said, he received instructions from City Attorney Avis Russell to turn over copies of the OMI file to Metropolitan Crime Commission vice president Anthony Radosti, pursuant to a public records request. On April 29, Munster said, he received a call from Gusman. The CAO allegedly "screamed" at him for releasing the report, parts of which Gusman said were "silly" and "not based on fact."
"I tried to explain how the report had been released [but] he kept telling me he was going to get me. I found his behavior to be completely out of character for Mr. Gusman [who] is usually one of the coolest people I have ever encountered," Munster wrote. "[If OMI agents] can be threatened, then all city employees can be threatened by upper management."
Munster concluded: "I am personally distressed by these threats by Mr. Gusman and have had trouble eating and sleeping the last several days."
Gusman said last week that he might have been "upset" during that day's phone call with Munster, but he never threatened the OMI director. "I never did anything verbally or in writing to Peter Munster," Gusman said. "Peter Munster had a great imagination, rest his soul. But I never did him anything."
Meanwhile, the Morial Administration never acted on the OMI recommendation for an academic audit of crime figures. To this day, crime statistics made available by NOPD to the public and the media are not independently verified by sources outside law enforcement.
On May 11, 1998, Munster sent another memo to Doyle to "amplify" his complaint against the CAO.
OMI received its anonymous complaint from "Lobo" on May 19, 1997. Shortly afterward, Gusman instructed Munster not to investigate the anonymous complaint against Pennington and Serpas, Munster said. When Munster objected that the agency's policy manual allowed for the investigation of anonymous complaints, Gusman ordered the practice stopped "immediately," according to a memo from Gusman that's included in Munster's papers. (Gusman says he stands by his OMI memos.)
On June 6, 1997 -- three weeks after OMI received the allegations from "Lobo" -- Gusman issued CAO Policy Memorandum No. 50-R which states: "Anyone may file a complaint with OMI except an employee of OMI ... but a complaint shall not be accepted anonymously."
Three weeks later, Munster sent Gusman an interoffice memorandum asking the CAO to "withdraw this policy change." Munster provided Gusman with a list of agencies that acted on anonymous complaints, including NOPD's internal affairs division, Crimestoppers, the FBI and Secret Service -- as well as city agencies such as the Department of Sanitation.
"As you can see by this list, we would be perhaps the only agency in city government not investigating anonymous complaints," Munster wrote in a memo to the CAO dated June 26, 1997. "This would, I feel, have a chilling effect on the conduct of our investigations. ... [S]ometimes the best complaints are received from people who fear retaliation."
For example, Munster cited OMI Case MIS-97-030-13, in which city tow truck drivers were suspected of having a party "and we believe consuming alcoholic beverages on city property and time." Wrote Munster: "Can you imagine the liability of the city if one of these tow trucks struck a citizen and we knew about this information and did nothing. This is the position which your order is putting this office in. We will know of wrong-doing but will be unable to do anything about it. I don't feel this office should ever be asked to turn its back on wrong-doing by city employees."
Munster also provided written criteria that OMI agents must follow, involving "two levels of review before any investigative effort is expended."
The OMI director's memo to Gusman concludes: "It would be foolish to consider abandoning a policy that has worked well for over thirteen years over one complaint against the Superintendent and assistant [sic] Superintendent of Police. I would hope that you reconsider your thoughts in this matter."
Yet the ban on anonymous complaints at OMI remained in effect for about three years. In a 1998 interview following Munster's death, Gusman told Gambit Weekly he felt OMI's use of anonymous complaints was being abused to further baseless attacks against the Morial administration -- which he considered part of a "conspiracy" involving OMI, the Metropolitan Crime Commission and Gambit Weekly.
After "some internal discussions," OMI director RoseMaria Broussard said last Friday that OMI decided to resume taking anonymous complaints approximately two years ago -- around the time of Gusman's 2000 departure.
However, the policy change has not been widely publicized. "We were not aware of it ... and I don't think the public is aware of it," says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
The OMI's report on NOPD was released on April 27, 1998. An ensuing uproar pitted Munster against both Gusman and Pennington, who, polls showed, was then the most popular official in New Orleans.
In his confidential filings with civil service, Munster accused the Morial administration of trying to derail the OMI probe of Pennington and Serpas, as well as the department's alleged "mis-reporting" of crime.
"I am deeply disturbed by the many changes and attempts at limiting the scope and powers of our investigation," Munster said. "During the course of this investigation, the CAO or his subordinates have attempted to shut this investigation down at least three times. This is an investigation that receive [sic] praise in editorials by The Times-Picayune and Gambit."
After the OMI report was publicized, Pennington refused to comment on its allegations that he might have violated state ethics laws by accepting free cell phones. The chief then suggested to a TV reporter that the probe was tainted by Burkart's marriage to an NOPD employee who had an alleged history of complaints against NOPD. Pennington never produced evidence to back up his charge.
Gusman told Gambit Weekly in 1998 that Burkart spent a lot of time at NOPD "picking up his wife and that kind of stuff." The CAO said he would consult the City Attorney to see how to "investigate the investigator" -- meaning Burkart.
Munster was infuriated. "We have seen our agents and not their work attacked by the administration in the vilest attack this agency has ever suffered," he wrote in his filings. "We have seen a CAO and Chief of Police reduced to attacking the wife of an agent personally for a complaint that I have reason to believe did not exist. There will be other battles but the behavior of the CAO sends a chilling message to the staff of OMI. I find myself explaining to clericals why they are not part of this fight."
Gusman last week emphatically denied Munster's allegations as "untrue."
In yet another confidential memo, Munster stated that Gusman visited OMI in December 1998 and "expressed concern" over the investigation of Pennington. "He explained to me that he was unconcerned about Chief Pennington's use of the cellular phone. He made an analogy that a certain amount of personal use of a cell phone was acceptable."
Munster says he told the CAO that he was concerned "about the volume of use" by Pennington and the fact that OMI had recently sustained a complaint against then-Deputy Superintendent Mitchell Dusset for "the same offense." In that case, Munster wrote, Pennington had issued a letter of reprimand to Dusset for the alleged infraction. In fact, Munster said, he told Gusman that OMI had a stronger case against Pennington.
"[Dusset] received his phone from members of the NOPD as a Christmas present. He then took the phone and allowed for [the Police Association of New Orleans] to pay for it," Munster wrote.
"In fact, [it] is almost impossible to prove that [Dusset] had knowledge of who was paying for the phone. Whereas with Pennington, he was receiving the phone directly from a supplier of services to the police department. I told him that I believed this was clearly a worse situation."
Munster opined, "The thing that disturbs me the most is the callous disregard for playing by the same rules for all city employees."
In his whistleblower filings, Munster includes a memo of a Dec. 17, 1998 meeting with Gusman at OMI: "Mr. Gusman was clearly agitated by the moral dilemma which we faced in the Pennington Case. He stated that he did not believe that Chief Pennington would knowingly violate the law. ... I told him that if OMI writes up one officer for a problem, we probably should write up the chief if he commits the same offense. Mr. Gusman expressed the fact that Pennington was the chief and not just another officer."
Other documents in the file show that Gusman was also concerned the cell phone probe might violate Pennington and Serpas' privacy rights. In a memo to Gusman's assistant CAO dated Aug. 6, 1997, Burkart said he was obeying an order by the CAO's office not to serve a subpoena on Pennington and Serpas. "[A]s per your instructions, I will not pursue the telephone records of the Superintendent as well as the Asst. Superintendent," Burkart's memo states.
"However, there were other records that I requested in this subpoena and I think they DO NOT pose any confidentiality threat to the Superintendent. I don't think Mr. Gusman is aware of this fact and I would like to pursue these records as required," Burkart wrote in the memo, which was approved by Munster.
Two months earlier, on June 13, 1997, Munster had sent a memo to Gusman acknowledging an order to delay Burkart's scheduled interview with the security director of Bell South, in connection with the cell phone probe. Munster acknowledged Gusman's concerns over the anonymous complaints that kicked off the cell phone probe.
"If we do not continue this investigation, I believe that it will fester like a sore," Munster told Gusman, adding that OMI had received additional information for the case. "Unless this complaint is handled properly, I feel that it will further lead to the deterioration of NOPD."
Neither Pennington or Serpas were ever charged with wrongdoing after the OMI allegations were published April 27, 1998. Pennington recently left NOPD to become police chief of Atlanta. Serpas is now chief of the Washington State Highway Patrol.
Gusman has repeatedly denounced the OMI cell phone probe as "bullshit."
"There hasn't been any evidence of a case involving corruption that we turned a blind eye to in the Office of Municipal Investigation or anywhere else," Gusman said last week. "These [OMI administrative probes] were not weighty matters."
In one of his last memos in his whistleblower file, Munster's writings took on an increasingly desperate tone. "WE HAVE BECOME THE PUNCHING BAG OF THE ADMINISTRATION!" he states in a memo dated May 11, 1998.
"That's not true," Gusman said last week. "I have never tried to build OMI down. I have only tried to build it up. I tried to get them to stop typing their own reports. I wanted a city attorney assigned to them."
Gusman stresses it is unfair to have to respond to allegations from a deceased OMI director. He now chairs a citizen task force aimed at improving police-community relations, which Gusman says will recommend an "independent monitor" to ensure the highest standards for both OMI and the NOPD's Public Integrity Division.
Before he left for his New Mexico vacation, Munster told city personnel director Doyle and the top officials of the Metropolitan Crime Commission that he would divulge more information when he returned. But he died July 10, 1998. New Mexico highway police ruled the death an accident.
In December 1998, Gusman sent a memo to city personnel director Doyle requesting that civil service open an exam for Munster's replacement under the new title of "municipal investigations coordinator." But on Feb. 5, 1999, Gusman sent a memo to Doyle rejecting the civil service timetable and a draft for an announcement for the new OMI directorship.
"The OMI Director functions as a vital part of my management team," Gusman wrote in a memo obtained last week by Gambit Weekly. "In view of the very confidential and extremely sensitive nature of this position, I cannot and will not be forced into accepting qualifications merely on some arbitrary timetable set by a Civil Service staff person. ... [I]f you cannot concur ... hold the draft announcement in abeyance until I have approved it."
But the CAO's office did not approve qualifications for the new position until Aug. 25, 2000 -- after Gusman left to run successfully for the city council. RoseMaria Broussard got the job that fall.
The OMI directorship now pays $34,000.
"All I can say is that Mr. Munster made allegations against people," says Morial attorney Fanning, who worked with Munster when he was at DEA and Fanning was a prosecutor with the local U.S. Attorney's office. "Unfortunately, he passed away. He never went through process to see if there was any merit to his claims.
"This [whistleblower file] ought to be taken as just what it is, an unsubstantiated complaint. It could well have been Marlin Gusman would have been totally exonerated. Somebody made a beef and we never got to the end of the story. ... There is no way you can carry forward. I think it is unfair."
Burkart is still working for OMI. But after Pennington attacked his wife on local TV -- and Gusman threatened to have Burkart investigated -- the watchdog agent isn't talking, sources say.
At least, not yet.
CORRECTION: The Missing exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) will open on Aug. 30. We incorrectly reported that the exhibition was scheduled to open for White Linen Night on Aug. 3. The current exhibitions at the CAC are When Time Stands Still and Southern Contemporary.