You know what New Orleans could probably use right about now, with the city on edge over the fragile state of its all-important drainage system? A fully functioning Inspector General's Office.
It's entirely fair to ask where Mayor Mitch Landrieu was when the now-public problems at the Sewerage & Water Board festered, leaving the city's ancient equipment in such poor shape that it may not be able to handle heavier-than-usual rainfall.
While the agency is legally distinct from the mayor's office, the mayor serves as president; one of Landrieu's deputy mayors, Cedric Grant, got special dispensation to hold a dual appointment as the water board's executive director, and the mayor's chief administrative officer Jeff Hebert was designated to attend meetings in Landrieu's place. On top of that, Landrieu has staked his reputation on sound, technocratic management, something that the August 5 flood proved had been clearly lacking at the agency.
But it's also fair to wonder where Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux and his operation have been, and where they are now.
In theory, the I.G.'s office could have uncovered the severe operational deficiencies, evaluated shortcomings and recommended better practices. Now that officials have been forced to come clean about the system's poor condition, it could be stepping up, helping to sort out what's wrong and suggesting how to fix it. But there's been nary a peep about calling in the office.
That's surely due to the fact that Quatrevaux is presiding over his own big mess.
An explosive report obtained by The Advocate last month, conducted by a top official in the office, accused another high-level official of a wide-ranging pattern of mismanagement and possible misconduct. It accused Assistant Inspector General Nadiene Van Dyke, who heads the office's Inspections and Evaluations Division, of a host of offenses, including steering lucrative contracts to friends, approaching reports with preconceived agendas, and punishing employees who questioned what was going on. It argued that she showed a pattern of behavior that disregarded the office's core ethic and "completely destroyed the most coveted benchmarks for an OIG — integrity and independence."
Van Dyke's lawyer said the report, authored by the OIG's chief of investigations Howard Schwartz, is full of errors and misunderstandings and "corrupted by personal bias." He said Quatrevaux, who has not commented on the report's merits publicly, plans to commission a third-party follow-up.
But the damage is already done. An agency can't credibly judge another's operations if it's in chaos itself, and if there's even a question over whether it chooses projects and approaches its duties honestly, fairly and open-mindedly.
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The Sewerage & Water Board's operations would seem to be a ripe target for the office, but it has only conducted a few reports. One, released in 2015, zeroes in on unauthorized use of overtime, an issue that would appear to be directly related to the staffing shortfalls that we now know plague the agency.
Another, released just last month, is actually singled out in Schwartz's documents as flawed. The report warned that massive infrastructure projects could allow dangerous lead to intrude into the pipes that carry drinking water to customers, creating a public health emergency.
But officials did no actual testing, a fact that drew the ire of Allen Miller, chairman of the Ethics Review Board which oversees the office. While lead is clearly a concern, Miller told Quatrevaux at a recent meeting, "without testing water, how can you determine whether there's an imminent health risk to any individual?"
Schwartz's report, meanwhile, said that Van Dyke put pressure on an employee not only to focus on lead but to issue more critical conclusions. The employee was later taken off the project.
All this comes as Quatrevaux, like Landrieu, has basically entered lame-duckhood. His contract is up in October, and while he has said he would like another term, the ERB is conducting a national search, which sure sounds like a vote of no-confidence.
Landrieu will be around until May and is racing against the clock to whip the system into working order. Over at the I.G.'s office, it will probably be up to the next person to figure out how to rebuild. In both cases, though, it will take a herculean effort to restore a precious commodity: public trust.
Email Stephanie Grace at firstname.lastname@example.org.