Tuesday, September 22, 2009

OIG office in crisis

I apologize for my infrequent posts lately, this one may have been more timely if I had written it a week ago. Oh well.

Anyway, things are not going very well at the fledgling Office of Inspector General.

It is both depressing and embarrassing that the office seems to have devolved before ever really becoming an intelligent life form in the first place.

To quickly recap, the original inspector general, Robert Cerasoli resigned for health reasons last winter, leaving the office on an interim basis to his number two guy, Len Odom. Over the summer, Interim IG Len Odom circumvented process to select an Independent Police Monitor, Neely Moody, just before the Ethics Review Board was to make a final decision on Odom's position as temporary head honcho. This undermined the credibility of the new police monitor with those that had fought for the creation of the position. After the new IG was selected, Odom was pushed out entirely by Ethics Review Board Chairmen Rev. Kevin Wildes before being promptly reinstated on a temporary basis by new IG Edouard Quatrevaux, who himself then immediately took a leave of absence. Odom resigned within a week. Immediately following that, the police monitor, Neely Moody resigned.

In between, Moody and Odom collaborated on a report bashing Robert Cerasoli's handling of the office and released it to the press. Quatrevaux claimed Moody told him he would "take the office down with him" during a heated argument preceding his resignation and the release of the report on Cerasoli.

Do you got all that?

It is a gigantic mess. And it's shameful. For all of those that fought for the creation of the Office of Inspector General, this sideshow basically proves the naysayers correct. It has become what they said it would become - an ineffective joke of an office that drains city resources while providing little of value in terms of exposing municipal inefficiencies and advising lawmakers and the public on how to improve governance.

Perhaps more upsetting, it has become yet another ridiculous racial lightning rod, another battleground in a never-ending and sometimes fictional turf war between dying political factions of various complexions.

Central to this is a never-ending disagreement over who is responsible for corruption and injustice in New Orleans This debate is almost always counterproductive because it is simultaneously oversimplified and overcomplicated by partisans for one side or another.

African Americans are not being unreasonable when they complain about the media and a lot of the white establishment's never-ending crusade against perceived corruption within African American political and business classes. It is unambiguously hypocritical for whites to moralize about perceived African American corruption while turning a blind eye to or openly advocating for the continuation of the structural and historic racism that has created an entire economy of white privilege and an almanac of horrible outcomes for black children born into it. Besides, it is not as if there isn't plenty of entrenched corruption amongst white political and industrial elites - superfluous boards, tax assessment treats, and the like.

However, that certainly doesn't mean that corruption in what are generally perceived as African American hustles in the municipal game should just be ignored or brushed under the rug. Not everyone who wants the law of the land enforced against crooks of color is party to white tribalism.

The whole concept of the Office of Inspector General became part of this never-ending tug of war from the moment the City Charter was changed to authorize it many years ago. That's why it took damn near a decade between the authorization of the office and it's actual creation.

Who's corruption would the OIG prioritize?

Black or white?

It's a circular firing squad and nobody feels safe enough to be the first to put down their gun.

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Robert Cerasoli once had the credibility and goodwill to create an effective culture and reliable systems within the Office of Inspector General. He had the chance to staff the office with responsible, dedicated, and selfless auditors and investigators.

He was the general manager and head coach of the team. He not only did the hiring and firing, but he was also in charge of how his employees operated on the field.

When he and his health failed, the team lost.

I don't know what it was that caused the rift between he and Len Odom. I don't know if it resulted from how Odom went about hiring the police monitor, but it seemed to have happened sooner.

Perhaps the rift appeared immediately.

When Cerasoli turned down access to a city car upon arrival and began to audit how the city distributes cars, maybe Odom disagreed with that prioritization. The IG's office did indeed hook up some cars after Cerasoli left.

I don't know how it happened exactly.

It certainly does seem like Mr. Odom hijacked the power of the office. He totally blew the Independent Police Monitor process, hiring someone with whom he was personally close and undermining an effort by police brutality and corruption watchdogs that had been in the works for a decade. He used his office to pursue what largely appears to be a personal vendetta against Mr. Cerasoli. He decided to sandbag the OIG on his way out of the door by releasing that report to the public and otherwise conducting himself like a child.

The report on Cerasoli could have been useful if it had actually been an audit of OIG systems to date, one that had recommendations on how to improve office operations. But it isn't. Instead, it's a largely personal hatchet job. That doesn't mean that some of the observations made don't expose mistakes for which Cerasoli is responsible - there are some bad bits in there - but you only have to read the 15 page report to realize that it's personal. So many of the issues examined are a direct result of the city's efforts to obstruct progress at the OIG not Cerasoli's shortcomings.

Yet the Odom-Cerasoli dynamic isn't the only thing at play here.

I was also struck by the way Odom was asked to step down upon Quatrevaux's hiring. Again, Rev. Kevin Wildes told Odom to pack up his things and get out even though Odom's resignation wasn't to be effective until sometime in October. Quatrevaux reinstated Odom and then Odom voluntarily resigned at the end of the week.

I don't know what got into Reverend Kevin Wildes but the Chairman of the Ethics Review Board does not have the despotic authority to fire the Inspector General.

His anger is what caused the ridiculous and embarrassing gymnastics that lead to Odom in and out dance.

The whole sad affair has created the political room for Mayor Ray Nagin to launch into one of the more insulting and hypocritical tirades of his administration.

The credibility of two of the most important reform offices of the city, the OIG and the Independent Police Monitor, is at risk. That is something that should alarm all of us.

We need working systems for accountable governance, not a total retreat from of the concept.

I fear that the latter is more likely than the former.

So how do we clean this mess up?

I have no doubt that the offices will remain, but that's not enough. We need them to have credibility so that they can actually be effective. They cannot be a lightening rod offices.

1. Reverend Kevin Wildes might need to fall on the sword. I don't know if people were insulted by his behavior but it didn't look classy from afar. He may not have "started it," but he took it public and that was inappropriate. His actions demonstrate his ease over the Ethics Review Board that makes me wonder if the length of his tenure there has lead him to treat it too much like a personal fiefdom. Other members of that Board should assert themselves.

2. Eduard Quatrevaux should be given a chance to stabilize the office with the support of our elected officials and the public. I wonder if he might need to agree to a sunset date for his administration of that office if a cloud of mistrust remains overhead.

3. The new Independent Police Monitor should be selected by a commission independent of the Inspector General and the Ethics Review Board.

4. City Council has got to band together and create an uninhibited consensus on how to proceed. They must resist all efforts by the Mayor to further undermine or de-fund the OIG or the Independent Police Monitor as the 2010 budget proceedings begin. However that needs to happen - let it happen. The Council factions, too often divided by race, need to set all their BS aside and agree to act as one. Each side must compromise to do so.

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It really really sucks that we're starting from scratch again. It's pathetic.

Given the elections and investigations underway and on the horizon, we'll have plenty of ridiculous politics over the next year that we'll be just fine if we do this one thing the right way.

7 comments:

MAD said...

Good analysis, except for that ridiculous sidebar about white privilege conspiring to assure continued "horrible outcomes" for minorities. This story could have been told without such a facile and gratuitous contribution to the coarsening of the local race dialogue.

Papa Bear said...

Eli,

let's have a beer soon. I can talk about this topic all day.

Clifton said...

I wanna be there when you have that beer because I want in on that conversation.

E said...

Let's do it fellas. Pick a time and place and I'll be there.

Superdeformed said...

It seems like everything is building up for the next Mayor. City government is going to be left in utter disarray and chaos.

It feels like the old regime is making a mess of everything to cover their tracks on the way out. I hope these federal investigations and civil cases lead to something.

Anonymous said...

You should call the Rev. Wildes and ask him about it -- I was told that he DIDN'T fire Odom; I heard that the TP made the WHOLE thing up, and then couldn't backpedal on what they said, making the whole thing look a lot messier than it actually was.

E said...

Anon, that sounds fascinating. Please feel free to shoot me an email.