In a rare public display of its final hiring decision, the Ethics Review Board narrowly selected former Florida Chief Inspector General Derry Harper on Wednesday as the next inspector general for the city of New Orleans.
The seven-member board grilled both Harper and Howard Schwartz, the other finalist for the chief local government watchdog, in an open hearing at Xavier University that also included tough questions to both candidates from both the board and members of the public.
The board ended an intense three and a half-hour meeting, with more than two dozen people attending, by appointing Harper on a 5-1 vote, with only Vice Chairman James Brown voting against. That came after a motion by Brown to appoint Schwartz failed 4-3.
Brown, Michael Cowan and Joe Ricks voted for Schwartz. Board Chairman Allen Miller, Howard Rodgers, Elizabeth Livingston de Calderon and the Rev. Brandon Boutin voted against Schwartz, each saying they wanted a “fresh start” in the wake of controversies under former IG Ed Quatrevaux even though they had the utmost respect for Schwartz, a former FBI agent who had led the IG office’s investigations and served as interim IG after Quatrevaux’s departure.
Harper, 63, is a former assistant U.S. attorney and assistant district attorney in Tennessee, a former inspector general for the Florida public university system and also served as the Sunshine State’s chief inspector general for the governor’s office, overseeing the state of Florida’s other inspectors general. He also served as a senior attorney for BellSouth Corp. for 13 years.
The Ethics Review Board, led in its questioning of the candidates by Brown, expressed some concern about audits in Florida that criticized Harper’s lack of reports as university system inspector general between 2007 and 2011. Harper said his small office was working for years on an explosive report that came out in 2012 about a student killed in a hazing ritual.
But the board directed its most pointed questions at Schwartz, who was fired by former Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux when an internal report written by Schwartz alleging corruption inside the IG’s office was leaked to The New Orleans Advocate.
“Did you have anything to do with leaking the report to the press?” Brown asked Schwartz.
“No,” Schwartz said.
He also defended authoring a report on one of his fellow deputy inspectors general, Nadine Van Dyke, someone Quatrevaux said was a rival of Schwartz’s for taking over the office. Schwartz claimed Quatrevaux directed him to do the reports, rather than having someone outside the office do an independent review.
Several members of the board also asked Schwartz if he could effectively lead the office out of a controversy in which he played a part. Schwartz repeatedly said he did the right thing to investigate internal abuses in the office and was not aware of them because Quatrevaux had kept the information secret.
Former city parking administrator Zepporiah Edmonds accused Schwartz of disclosing her complaint to the IG about a city contract, which she said led to retaliation against her and her firing. The firing was later overturned by the Civil Service Commission. Schwartz denied giving any false testimony in that case.
The Ethics Review Board declined to discuss Edmonds’ allegations because it involves a pending ethics complaint, and it didn’t appear to factor in their decision between Schwartz and Harper.
Two employees of the Inspector General’s Office rushed to the microphone after the initial vote to appoint Schwartz failed, hoping to convince board members – particularly Hicks, who said he was torn about whom to support – to not hold the office’s controversies against Schwartz.
“We are already recovering from this,” said Erica Smith. “I think it will be a mistake to let Howard go.”
“Howard was a light that cleared out some darkness in this office,” Bob Wilson said.
But all but Brown shifted their votes to support Harper after the motion to select Schwartz failed.
Asked if he would stay with the office under Harper, Schwartz said, “I don’t know. I’m going to talk with him now.” He and Harper spoke briefly after the meeting, but after that Harper said no decision had been made.
Rather than retreat to executive session to discuss the hiring, the Ethics Review Board held the whole discussion in public. Several members said Harper brought a “CEO’s mentality” to the position but would have a steep learning curve to build relationships and understanding of New Orleans government and its many ancillary boards and commissions. In supporting Schwartz, Cowan said, “Mr. Harper brings more breadth and less depth. Mr. Schwartz brings more depth and less breadth. In my view, what we need is depth.”
Looming large in his absence was Quatrevaux, who took over as the city’s third inspector general in 2009 and made an immediate splash, scuttling a deal then-Mayor Ray Nagin tried to make to have Stuart Juneau and Irvin Mayfield redevelop the Municipal Auditorium. In more than eight years since, Quatrevaux produced many explosive reports, including ones spearheaded by Schwartz about the New Orleans Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit and massive theft at the Sewerage & Water Board.
But Quatrevaux also clashed with Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson – who endorsed Schwartz for the post -- and presided over the contentious issues with Van Dyke and Schwartz. In a parting shot and hoping to stop the selection process, Quatrevaux issued a letter last week calling for Miller, the chairman, to resign because he had failed to disclose that he signed a contract between his law firm, Phelps Dunbar, and the Sewerage & Water Board while the Ethics Review Board was receiving the IG’s reports on that agency.
Miller said there was no conflict because the Ethics Review Board never voted on anything involving the Sewerage & Water Board. It did question Quatrevaux about his report on the agency, however. The board’s attorney, Dane Ciolino, said there was no conflict of interest for Miller because no vote regarding the S&WB took place.
Ironically, Miller ended up voting against Schwartz.