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City permitting officials promise to fix problems exposed by WWL-TV

Jackson also assured City Councilman Joe Giarrusso that her staff of inspectors have been encouraged to speak out about permit abuses.

NEW ORLEANS — City permitting officials assured City Council members at a hearing Friday that they are working to address problems exposed by last week’s WWL-TV investigation into plumbing inspectors who get gas installation permits on the side for unlicensed contractors.

The WWL-TV “Hidden Dangers” investigation of the Sewerage & Water Board’s Plumbing Department prompted the FBI to raid that department and seize paper-only inspection and permit records on the morning of Nov. 5, first thing in the morning after the story aired.

The station’s series of stories focused on the head of that department, Jay Arnold, and one of his plumbing inspectors, Vernon Marcotte, getting hundreds of permits to install or repair residential gas lines and letting unlicensed people do the work under their licenses. But WWL-TV also found that members of the city’s Safety and Permits Department played a key role approving the work, especially mechanical inspector Buddy Fraiche, who was also working on the side as a plumber without the proper approvals.

Safety & Permits Director Tammie Jackson warned Sewerage & Water Board officials about their employees’ gas permits 10 months ago, but the S&WB did nothing to address it until WWL-TV’s questions prompted employee suspensions.

Jackson said she learned from WWL-TV that Danny Lambert, a plumber with a suspended license, was still getting his gas work inspected and approved by Safety & Permits inspectors for more than a week after his suspension for being a part of the scheme and allegedly letting Marcotte and others use his license.

Jackson’s boss, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Peter Bowen, told the City Council the permitting office suspended Lambert Oct. 25 and had frozen his account to prevent him from getting any new permits, but “never contemplated” that he would have 300 open permits that still needed inspections when he was suspended.

“As soon as we were made aware of that we wrote new code in (the online permitting system) to correct that, so they froze all 300” of Lambert’s permits, Bowen said. “The three recent inspections were rescinded. And that work will have to be completed by a new licensed plumber before we can inspect it.”

Jackson also assured City Councilman Joe Giarrusso that her staff of inspectors have been encouraged to speak out about permit abuses.

She said the leadership is “letting our inspectors know that when they go to a site, if they suspect that this was performed by an unlicensed person to actually let the State Licensing Board (for Contractors) know.”

Jackson also said she held her first meeting recently with private, third-party inspectors who handle a large portion of construction inspections for the city.

“We had a meeting with them and will have quarterly meetings with them to ensure they are following suit,” Jackson said. “Do not send us an inspection or inspection report that simply says ‘passed.’ What passed? The same requirement we have on our internal inspectors.”

Bowen added that the city’s chief building official is now auditing third-party inspection reports to make sure they comply with city policies.

A sweeping federal corruption probe has already netted four indictments of third-party inspectors at one firm, IECI & Associates, including a city inspector, Brian Medus, who was also registered to work for IECI on the side.

The WWL-TV investigation found multiple IECI inspections where photographs from one property were repeated to justify work at other locations. The station also found an IECI inspector approved six of Marcotte’s gas permits and used the same photograph of him in all six.

Fraiche, in addition to working on the side as a plumber, was registered to do third-party inspections for IECI. Jackson said that was not allowed and suspended Fraiche, pending a disciplinary hearing. Another city inspector, Hieu Vu, also registered with the state as an IECI inspector in July.

When WWL-TV inquired about Vu, city spokesman Beau Tidwell said, “Mr. Vu represented to Director Jackson that he never took an assignment from IECI once it was established that outside work would not be approved” and promised to terminate his employment with IECI.

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