NEW ORLEANS — The city of New Orleans is spending $50,000 for a New York-based law firm to investigate possible bribery and misconduct in its Safety & Permits Department, even as at least four local and federal law enforcement agencies and the City Council are probing the same thing.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s decision to hire former U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite and his law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius raises questions about efficiency and potential conflicts among various investigative agencies.
“Why would the city pay for a criminal investigation when they’re well aware that a criminal investigation is already underway?” said Rafael Goyeneche, head of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission. “Just like the city doesn’t hire private counsel to investigate the car burglaries, they let the police take care of that.”
Although Polite used to run the federal prosecutor’s office that’s been bringing criminal charges in the matter, he left the government in 2017. His work for Morgan Lewis & Bockius is separate from the current criminal investigation and has no access to grand jury testimony or other law enforcement records.
The city’s internal investigation of its Safety & Permits Office is also the fourth separate investigation into the cause of the Hard Rock Hotel collapse on Oct. 12.
The city’s independent Office of Inspector General has acknowledged that the cause of the hotel collapse, which killed three workers, has been folded into its investigation of corruption in the city’s permitting office, which it has been conducting for years with the FBI, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Inspector General and the U.S. Homeland Security Inspector General, according to city documents.
That criminal investigation has already netted a guilty plea from a former New Orleans building inspector who admitted taking $65,000 in bribes, and it led to the suspension of two other city employees.
Cantrell and Polite signed a professional services contract on Jan. 29, the same day that the City Council held a hearing to launch its own investigation. But Cantrell criticized the City Council for taking that action, saying it could hinder the criminal investigation.
The city charter grants the City Council distinct investigative powers.
Cantrell’s chief administrative officer, Gilbert Montano, said Tuesday that Polite’s investigation was “instituted in early October…. That has been ongoing over the last several months and it has been very fruitful.”
Asked if Polite’s investigation focused on criminal activity or administrative functions in the Safety & Permits Office, Montano said, “I think it’s too early to answer that question directly.”
On Thursday, the mayor’s office issued a statement to WWL-TV saying Polite’s work would focus on “a neutral assessment and evaluation of our Safety and Permits Department.” But contractual documents provided to WWL-TV in response to a public records request focus mostly on investigating criminal activity.
The city’s first documented record of the investigation came three weeks after the collapse, a Nov. 1 engagement letter by Polite thanking the city for hiring his firm “in connection with an internal investigation of possible bribery and related misconduct in the (city’s) Department of Safety and Permits.”
On Nov. 26, City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf, a former federal prosecutor who worked for Polite in the New Orleans U.S. Attorney’s Office, sent a memo to the city’s procurement officer authorizing him to circumvent the normal, public contracting process to hire Polite’s firm “in the best interest of the city.” She referred to Polite’s work as “Hard Rock Hotel Collapse Legal Services.”
“Conversations around the need for an external assessment/investigation began with Mr. Polite prior to the Hard Rock Collapse, but a contractual agreement was expedited following the Hard Rock collapse, to ensure the City was exercising its due diligence regarding our Safety and Permits Department,” the mayor’s office said Thursday.
This is Morgan Lewis & Bockius’ first contract with the city, but Polite is a native New Orleanian and was in charge of the U.S. Attorney’s Office when the federal investigation of corruption in the Safety & Permits office began. Polite’s engagement letter says the large firm would not charge its usual fees based on time and expenses and instead charges a flat $50,000.
Although that cost is limited, Goyeneche questioned why the mayor’s office and City Council are working at cross-purposes on the same issue.
“Why can’t they consolidate their efforts to improve the rules and regulations involving Safety & Permits?” he said. “Two separate efforts are costing the taxpayers more money and may be redundant.”