Derry Harper, the assistant district attorney general who came down from Nashville, Tennessee, for the chance to helm a New Orleans Inspector General’s Office rocked by scandal, was chosen for that job Wednesday, beating out the interim IG who has led the office for the past few months.
The Ethics Review Board voted 6-1 in favor of Harper over Howard Schwartz, despite the latter’s pledge to chart a new course for the beleaguered office.
Earlier, a motion to appoint Schwartz failed 3-4.
Members who voted against Schwartz cited a need for the office to start anew, given his central role in the ugly spat between him and his predecessor, Ed Quatrevaux, and an explosive report Schwartz authored that accused one of his former colleagues of the same sort of corruption the watchdog office is designed to root out.
The members generally refrained Wednesday from siding with either Quatrevaux or Schwartz, who have been at odds over whether Schwartz engineered the report to line up the top job for himself.
“I think given where we are coming from, we need a fresh start,” said Elizabeth Livingston de Calderon. The office has “an opportunity for changeover, and I would like to see that happen for us here.”
Harper acknowledged that he faces a “learning curve,” being an outsider in an often insular city, but he pledged to work with members of the community to produce results.
“My prime directive is, I can’t do this alone,” he said. “It’s to identify problems and fix them. It’s to restore, and to earn the trust and respect of this community, and make a difference.”
Harper, 63, was one of more than two dozen candidates who applied to replace Quatrevaux after the board that oversees the IG’s Office put out a call for applications early this year.
It will fall to him to restore the prestige of an office that has been plagued in recent months by infighting and scandal.
Things notably went awry after the July leak of Schwartz’s report, which accused the head of the office's Inspections and Evaluations Division, Nadiene Van Dyke, of approaching audits with preconceived agendas and funneling lucrative contracts to her friends.
Quatrevaux was furious about the leak and vowed that the report would be discredited. He later fired Schwartz days before the latter was due to take over the office on a temporary basis.
Schwartz has maintained that it was Quatrevaux who gave him the OK to investigate Van Dyke in the first place. He did so after other employees complained about her behavior, he said.
If he were really out only to protect his own interests, it would have been far easier for him to ignore the complaints and stay in Quatrevaux’s good graces, he argued Wednesday.
“All I had to do was nothing,” he said. “There would be no internal investigation. Ed Quatrevaux supports me for this position. But I did that because it was the right thing to do. And it cost me my job.”
Three board members — James Brown, Michael Cowan and Joe Ricks — seemed to agree with that logic. All voted for Schwartz to get the permanent job, and Brown voted against Harper on the final vote.
“We can second-guess about how some of this was handled in hindsight, but I believe him when he says that he investigated it because it was the right thing to do,” Brown said.
Cowan also praised Schwartz’s work in several roles with the FBI’s New Orleans office, which he said gave Schwartz unique insight into corruption in New Orleans.
But de Calderon, Allen Miller, Brandon Boutin and Howard Rodgers all said that, regardless of Schwartz’s intent, he was too tainted by the recent cloud of controversy to lead an office trying to convince a skeptical public of its integrity.
“It’s a hard decision for me because I do believe that Howard Schwartz has been put in a position not wrought by himself,” Miller said. “But my fiduciary responsibility is for the office. I think Mr. Harper demonstrates to me a CEO mentality, someone who is transformative.”
Harper has had a nearly 40-year career in investigatory and other roles, including his current job in Nashville and past roles as Florida’s chief IG for internal audits and investigations and as IG for the State University System of Florida.
His start date has not been determined but will be negotiated, along with his salary, in the coming days, Miller said.
Separately Wednesday, the Ethics Review Board took pains to cast itself as above reproach, in light of claims from Quatrevaux this past week that Miller, a lawyer who is the board’s chairman, had improperly represented the Sewerage & Water Board, an agency the IG’s office oversees, while serving on the ethics panel. Miller was critical of a report Quatrevaux released this year strongly attacking the S&WB.
Miller claimed Wednesday that he had done no wrong. So did Dane Ciolino, the board’s general counsel, who said Quatrevaux had not pointed to any state law that Miller had violated.
When asked about Miller’s situation, Kathleen Allen, the ethics administrator for the state Ethics Board, said she couldn’t address individual cases. However, she did cite several portions of state law that deal with public servants participating in economic transactions that involve governmental entities.
One of those statutes prohibits appointed board members, or legal entities in which they have an economic interest, from bidding on or entering into any contract or transaction that is under the supervision of the appointed board member’s agency.
The OIG, which answers to the ethics board, has oversight over the S&WB and its contracts. Miller signed the contract between Phelps Dunbar, the law firm of which he is a partner, and the S&WB, according to a copy of the contract obtained by The Advocate.
Quatrevaux has questioned how the OIG would be able to review the contract of one of its bosses. At least one of Miller’s invoices for work done for the S&WB was submitted as recently as Nov. 10.
Ciolino said that Miller had never participated in votes about the S&WB and that, according to his review, Miller’s work with the S&WB does not qualify as a conflict of interest.
Quatrevaux also had criticized a board search committee for holding an unpublicized teleconference to whittle down a pool of 27 contenders for his old job to five finalists.
Ciolino responded that because the search committee did not constitute a quorum of the full board and because the final decision on finalists was made by the full board at a public meeting, no rule had been broken.
State law requires committees and subcommittees of public bodies to conduct their business in public, and the state Attorney General's Office has cautioned against holding meetings by phone,
The board on Wednesday let members of the public quiz Schwartz and Harper and interviewed both candidates in public, rather than in a closed-door session, before voting.