Monday, August 11, 2008

NOAH Raided: Don't Lose the Big Picture

The FBI is sweeping NOAH's Poydras St. offices for documents related to the corrupt home remediation program. Though Nagin's totally credibly internal investigation has yielded a call for reimbursement of just over $100,000 from contractors paid for services they did not render, because the Mayor himself has alluded to the fact that NOAH's records were so lame that he's can't really be sure which records are 'accurate,' it is likely that the FBI and Inspector General probes will yield a different conclusion.

Jeffrey says:

Of course, the real serious discrepancy that isn't given much attention here is this. This remediation program was originally conceived as a $15 million program to help poor and elderly homeowners recover their property. As we all know by now, the majority of that budget did not actualize as properties were left untouched or improperly demolished or just not even considered for the program. The fact that only about $2 million was actually spent reflects the real failure of NOAH. Be it the result of incompetence, indifference or thievery (and very petty theivery at that if the city's numbers are correct) the failure to follow through on a service like this represents an enormous breach of faith.

But I have a different take. I won't address whether or not $100,000 is a big or small amount to have been laundered because I don't believe Mayor Nagin's internal probe has any credibility. Rather, Jeffrey's assertion that "the real failure of NOAH" was their inability to spend the full amount they had been budgeted on a program for seniors misses the point.

In fact, the real failure, the real substantive problem, is that our city charter allows for quasi-governmental organizations like NOAH to even exist in the first place. Established by the city, funded through the city, staffed with city employees but with no day-to-day accountability to anyone, the questionable practices we've uncovered were enabled from inception.

Besides, please remember that the home remediation program was never really necessary in the first place:

Touted as a centerpiece of Nagin's 2007 budget, the mayor said in late 2006 that he wanted the city to offer gutting services because faith-based and grass-roots groups providing such services had become overwhelmed.

That theory, Davis said, raised eyebrows in the tight-knit community of disaster recovery organizers.

"The idea of this program always seemed silly to us, because we have hundreds of volunteers each month," she said. "There's no reason to hire professional demolition crews to gut houses for old people."

Indeed, as the community nonprofit groups prepared in the spring and summer last year to receive thousands of unskilled volunteers, they were at a loss for properties. Several, including ACORN, a Catholic church group and the Episcopal Diocese program, solicited NOAH officials for some of their addresses, city officials have said.

So while that raises questions for our Mayor and City Council as to why money was budgeted for a program like this no matter which agency got empowered to administer, it also begs why the city chose an agency that operated with such little oversight.

While it is sometimes difficult to seperate out the systems in play from the players under investigation, let us not lose sight of what this investigation should be about: identifying and fixing the broken systems that allowed such blatant waste and fraud to be carried out with such incredible ease without anyone catching it or without anyone saying anything.

From my viewpoint, the utility of the very concept of a city established, city funded, and city staffed non-profit answerable only to a part-time board of directors appointed by the Mayor needs to be examined. We may very well determine that all quasi-governmental non-profit agencies should be written out of existence entirely or folded into civic offices directly accountable to Mayoral overseers on a day-to-day basis.

There are other agencies structured similarly to NOAH and it could be very interesting to examine how they actually operate.

That is why this story is important, that is why all of this is a big deal. The numbers are irrelevant not just because they come from an invalid internal probe but because when legitimate ones are released, but also because, whatever the amounts are, they'll serve to sensationalize or disarm what should be an honest effort to reform the enabling systems in question.


jeffrey said...

The problem with asserting that NOAH was "unnecessary" because all the work was being done by volunteers anyway is that it implies that everyone who needed help gutting their house received such help. Is that the case?

If it is, then that makes the squabbling over contracting procedures appear even LESS "substantive" than before.

If this is really all just about some academic debate over proper systems of Public Administration then the massive outrage is indeed overblown and legitimately subject to all the aspersions of political and racial motivation it has received.

Anonymous said...

new orleans building corporation

look at the world trade center contracts

E said...

I couldn't disagree more.

Does a story have to actually be sensational by your definition to justify sensational coverage or an outraged popular reaction?

I'm sorry no little girls got killed in the bilking of New Orleans taxpayers.

Far more important that "some academic debate," eroded faith in municipal government is something that touches all of us.

The failure of municipal government represents one of the most critical problems in this city.

Is it somehow inappropriate that public outrage finally brought about an investigation that may finally begin to address at least a part of that problem?

jeffrey said...

Does a story have to actually be sensational by your definition to justify sensational coverage or an outraged popular reaction?

Well... yes. The very definition of "sensationalism" would be a media reaction that is out of proportion with the substance of the event covered.

The problem is that unless you are able to demonstrate that the institutional corruption of government practice actually affects the lives in a manner beyond just "squandering (relatively little of) our tax dollars" then it's hard to see any move to reform as motivated by anything other than a wish to affect the political fortunes of those tied closely to the current system.

And maybe that's a worthy goal... but hiding that behind "good government" reform could strike people as somewhat dishonest.

jeffrey said...

Grr... passage above should read, "...actually affect the lives of ordinary people in a manner..."

bayoustjohndavid said...

Don't help Nagin wiggle off the hook, E. TV news shows only have the time to explore stories from so many angles. If I were a Nagin aide discussing NOAH on "Six on Your Side" I'd love for a segment to be devoted to whether the program was unnecessary because of the volunteers. I can't remember what the mayor was trying to deflect attention from when he made a big public announcement (re=announcement, actually) about the program in March of 2007, but the money was approved in October 2006 along with the rest of the 2007 budget. I'll give this August 2007 link once again but begin on page 2, where the waiting times for free guttiing are listed, this time. Most of the waiting times are on pg. 3-4; they vary from 3-6 months, with some agencies too backed up to take any more applications.

Believe me, I looked at the 2007 budget very critically and wanted to question the $15M. But I couldn't just dismiss it out of hand. Don't get sidetracked by attacking something the mayor can easily defend.

Anonymous said...

15,000,000 / 5,000 = 3,000

they should have been able to service 3,000 homes once, or a lower number with repeat visits for grass cutting, etc.

so instead the serviced less than 900 with 100 of those then being demolished.

there is no reason this work had to be done through an outside quasi non-profit agency. it should have been done by a department such as DHND although they would have done no better. when we caught them we would have been catching a dept inside city hall, only dif. the point is transparency and accountablity are required either way.

Anonymous said...

You guys are all missing the bigger scandal here--NOAH did a lot more than remediation work.

Where did the MILLIONS of dollars go on the home assistance program go? THIS IS THE STORY! THE STORY OF STORIES! The remediation story frankly is small potatoes.

E said...

Are you talking about Nucoat, Nuroof, and the homebuyer's program?

It is unclear to me what was continued after the storm.

bayoustjohndavid said...

Until this year, NUCOAT or NUROOF had a bigger budget than the ren=mediation program. They might have both. In its first article, the T/P hinted that it might go in that direction, but it seems to have lost interest. Or I picked up on a hint that wasn't there.