Jazz Fest second Saturday 2017, Gambit copy

The crowd at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2017

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival provided hundreds of free tickets to City Hall departments last year in what was apparently a longstanding practice that could violate state laws against public workers accepting gifts, according to a report the city's Office of Inspector General released Wednesday.

The festival provided between 284 and 424 free tickets to seven city departments, worth between about $18,500 and $33,900, depending on how many were given out and whether they would have been purchased ahead of time or at the gate.

While many of the officials interviewed by investigators said they either threw away the free passes or gave them to workers with duties at the festival, others said they handed them out to staff or community members, according to the report.

The report is the first major investigation completed during the tenure of Inspector General Derry Harper, who was appointed last December. 

The investigation, initiated by an anonymous complaint in August 2017, also suggests the city has been underpaid for various services and equipment it provides to Jazzfest, but it does not indicate what other festivals or special events are charged in similar circumstances.

The report focuses on tickets provided during the 2017 event, during the term of former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

In an emailed statement, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office said, “The findings in the OIG report concern events prior to our term in office, and going forward, the current administration is committed to ensuring that appropriate policies are in place.”

The festival’s press office said: “Jazz Fest is currently reviewing the inspector general’s report. As always, the festival works closely with the city to comply with all municipal policies and regulations and will follow any forthcoming procedural recommendations.”

While the report includes comments from top officials in Landrieu’s administration saying that they told at least some city departments not to accept the free tickets, the way the passes were handled appears to have been a mixed bag across various departments.

Parks and Parkways Director Ann Macdonald told investigators that departments have received free tickets to the festival at least since she started in city government in 1988.

She said she distributes the tickets, in groups of two or three, to employees who work in the department’s offices and that she personally used them “a few years ago.”

Macdonald said “the tickets are not received for a service provided but she feels the Jazz Fest has a ‘partnership with the city,' ” according to the report.

Former Property Management Director George Patterson told investigators he sent all the tickets his department received to former Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant so they would not be used. However, his former assistant is quoted as saying that he gave her the tickets and told her to “try to do what you can to accommodate the employees.”

The Bureau of Revenue also received tickets but told investigators that they were given only to workers who needed to be at the festival's site to collect sales tax from vendors.

Police Department Superintendent Michael Harrison’s chief of staff told investigators that some tickets given to his department were used by Harrison and other senior staff in the course of their duties. Others were given to “clerical and support staff at NOPD headquarters” for personal use.

Fire Department Superintendent Tim McConnell told investigators that the tickets and parking passes sent to his department were used mainly for personnel on official duties. He said he used some of the tickets and gave others to a member of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe who was performing at Jazz Fest and whose family members could not afford to attend, according to the report.

Investigators referred information about 16 tickets provided to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office or Sheriff Marlin Gusman to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office.

Some of the officials interviewed by the inspector general also mentioned tickets being distributed to the City Council or being given to New Orleans Recreation Development Commission employees. However, the report does not indicate whether council members or NORDC staff members were interviewed, and it does not include tickets given to those departments in its total.

The mayor’s office did not respond to questions about whether Cantrell received or used free tickets while a member of the City Council.

A subtext of the report is that the city is not being fairly compensated for some services it provides to Jazz Fest.

It takes issue with the city’s policy of “loaning” three gazebos to Jazz Fest and erecting them at the Fair Grounds without any compensation. Governments are prohibited by the state constitution from providing equipment to outside groups without compensation.

Another portion of the report quotes Allen Yrle, assistant director for the Department of Public Works, as saying that Jazz Fest does not reimburse the city for work such as erecting signs and altering traffic patterns the way other events, including film crews and Mardi Gras parades, do.

“I am appalled at the amount of work we do for Jazz Fest” without compensation, Yrle said, according to the report.

A Property Management Department staffer also told investigators that Jazz Fest is not paying the market rate for bleachers it rents from the city.

The report recommends that the city discontinue the practice of accepting free tickets, require that Jazz Fest provide credentials to city workers who need to enter the festival site for their official duties, and discontinue the practice of loaning equipment to the festival.

City Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño, in an August letter provided by the Inspector General’s Office, said the city was working to draft policies to make sure “officials are aware of their obligations in advance” of next year’s festival.

The letter also says the Bureau of Revenue sought to get credentials, rather than tickets, to this year’s Jazz Fest, which also occurred during Landrieu’s administration, but that request was denied by festival organizers.

“We have not otherwise been able to fully confirm that no deficiencies occurred with Jazz Festival ticket distribution in 2018 prior to our arrival,” Montaño said.


Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​