NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Office of Inspector General is now investigating at least two allegations of abuse by city taxi inspectors.
The sweeping administrative investigation also includes an examination of how the allegations were handled by Deputy Director of the Office of Safety and Permits Malachi Hull, who oversees the Taxicab Bureau, according to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Communications Director.
Hotel surveillance video caught city taxi inspector Ronnie Blake allegedly pepper spraying and kneeling on a cab driver named Emmanuel Esterlin in October 2013.
The video shows Blake confronting Esterlin in the French Quarter after asking the cab driver for his taxicab permit and his driver’s license because he was illegally parked in the 100 block of Dauphine Street.
Esterlin had pulled up behind two other cabs, also illegally parked, and said he had hoped to ask Blake to let him go because he had just pulled up.
Blake allegedly told Esterlin to get out of the cab after Esterlin didn’t hand over his documents right away. He said he handed over his permit and license and got out of the cab.
Esterlin said he started to walk away from the inspector when Blake allegedly took out his handcuffs and, according to Esterlin, told him to get up against a wall.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s spokeswoman said in a statement that the video showed Esterlin punching Blake, something Esterlin denies.
“Even though the complete video shows that Esterlin punched Blake, we believe Blake’s response and his use of pepper spray was unacceptable and completely inappropriate,” Garnesha Crawford said.
Esterlin’s attorney said Tuesday that his client was not the aggressor.
“It is crystal clear that Ronnie Blake is perpetrator in that video. Ronnie Blake committed an aggravated battery,” said attorney Tom Shlossman.
The video does show Blake putting Esterlin on the ground, handcuffing him and kneeling on his back for several minutes while a crowd of people looked on.
“He was charged with battery after he was pepper sprayed,” Shlossman said.
After the incident, New Orleans police issued Esterlin a citation, and the officer’s narrative reads, “He punched Blake in the left eye."
“I find it hard to believe that the NOPD has seen that video,” Shlossman said.
NOPD Spokeswoman Remi Braden issued a statement in response to our inquiries about the incident: “The NOPD will continue to investigate this incident with the Office of the Inspector General and the City Attorney’s Office to determine possible additional charges being filed in this case."
It took until Monday for Shlossman to get the video from the city, even though Taxicab Bureau director Malachi Hull had it days after the incident happened on October 23, 2012.
Esterlin said after he got out of jail on Nov. 6, he was called to City Hall for a meeting with Hull. He recorded the conversation on his cell phone.
On the recordings, exclusively obtained by WWL-TV, Hull said, “I had a chance to look at the video. The hotel general manager, he sent me the images and I saw Blake asking you for your permit multiple times. Right?”
Hull goes on to tell Esterlin multiple times that the situation wouldn't have escalated if he had handed the permit over right away. Esterlin said in the recordings that he did hand over the documents the second time Blake asked for them.
“He kept yelling very loud down the street. But I was turning my face. He sprayed the pepper spray on me. I was on the ground like a baby,” Esterlin said in the recording.
Later on the recording, Hull said, “The incident that happened on that side, I can't change that. You were arrested. I can't change that. You were charged with a crime. I can't change that. But let me see what we can do moving forward.”
Also in the recording, Hull questions whether Esterlin took a swing at Blake. Esterlin said he was trying to keep from being handcuffed and taken to jail “for nothing” and didn't hit the inspector.
Hull is heard telling him that because of the criminal charge, Esterlin's taxi license would be automatically suspended.
Esterlin tells Hull he is a business student at Delgado with a wife, two children and a mother that he supports by driving the taxi.
On the recording, Hull even offers to try to get him a job in the meantime.
Shlossman said Hull ultimately issued Esterlin a citation that would’ve allowed Esterlin to keep driving the cab before the battery charge was adjudicated in court.
Those citations were all dismissed by the city after a protest last fall.
“Blake is not gonna press charges against you. OK?” Hull says to Esterlin on the recording.
Only prosecutors have the authority to refuse criminal charges. And the city attorney’s office did just that on Monday, the same day they handed over the video of the incident to Shlossman.
“These taxicab inspectors were abusing their power. And Malachi Hull made the decision not to take these gentlemen off the street and two people went to the hospital because of it,” Shlossman said.
Here's the timeline of events of two controversial altercations between city taxi inspectors and those they regulate.
Inspector Ronnie Blake allegedly pepper sprayed Esterlin on Oct. 23.
Esterlin met with Malachi Hull on Nov. 6.
On Nov. 9, French Quarter tour guide Wendy Bosma had an altercation with taxi inspector Wilton Joiner.
Joiner was arrested for battery on Nov. 29, the same day Ronnie Blake was suspended.
Other tour guides say they complained to Hull and to the Inspector General’s Office before all of it unfolded.
Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said Tuesday that his office received more than a dozen complaints about the inspectors last Fall.
It’s a fact that Shlossman said should've led the city to take action sooner.
“What type of training have these investigators had to be able to carry pepper spray or handcuffs,” he asked.
Mayor Landrieu's Communications Director Garnesha Crawford said in a statement, "The mayor has viewed the video and finds the actions unacceptable and inconsistent with what we expect from our taxicab bureau. The city conducted an internal investigation, after which we required investigators to turn over any pepper spray and handcuffs, reassigned investigators to desk duty, and suspended Ronnie Blake without pay. We also requested that the office of the inspector general conduct a thorough investigation, and the matter will be turned over to the district attorney's office if that is what the investigation concludes. All investigators are undergoing a robust and aggressive training program to ensure professional conduct at all times."
Crawford added that the Inspector General's administrative investigation includes a look at Malachi Hull and that "the city has reprimanded Mr. Hull pending the outcome of that investigation. Even though the complete video shows that Esterlin punched Blake, we believe Blake's response and his use of pepper spray was unacceptable and completely inappropriate."