KENNER, La. — Building safety inspector James Mohamad, who was convicted last year of falsifying construction permits and inspections, is being accused by a well-known lawyer of filing more false inspections in Kenner as he awaits sentencing in federal court.
Kenner police confirmed they are investigating allegations that Mohamad “falsified a plumbing inspection report” in December “and filed it with the Kenner Office of Code Enforcement,” the office he once ran as Kenner’s director of code enforcement.
State ethics laws forbid former government employees from doing the same work they used to do for an agency within two years of leaving that agency.
The home reconstruction in question, on Fairway Street, is one of at least five projects Mohamad inspected in Kenner in the last six months while working for a third-party inspection firm called IECI & Associates.
“To accept reports from someone who has been convicted of misconduct related to the issuance of fraudulent reports, it makes no sense to me,” said Sherry Landry Schultz, the former city attorney for New Orleans who filed the complaint against Mohamad. “I don't understand why the city would want to do so.”
After WWL-TV asked the city of Kenner about Mohamad conducting inspections in Kenner, Mike Power, the interim city attorney, acknowledged the work might violate state ethics laws. He said the city asked IECI not to use Mohamad on any more Kenner inspections until April 20, which would mark two years since he left his position as Kenner’s top building safety official.
Mohamad was fired by former Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn in April 2021, after a federal grand jury indicted him on a bribery charge.
He pleaded guilty in March 2022, admitting he had paid contractors to file false permits in New Orleans so that a firm he owned could get work there installing heating and air conditioning systems without the proper license. Mohamad also admitted to bribing a New Orleans permitting official so he could get the jobs approved under other contractors’ names and get them passed at inspection.
He also admitted that he inspected his own work as a part of the scheme, in violation of state law, and filed false tax returns. Federal sentencing guidelines say Mohamad faces three to four years in prison for those crimes. Mohamad has argued his punishment should be reduced to a year of home confinement because he paid back his tax debt, helped the government with information and suffers from “long-haul Covid.” He also maintains the crime wasn’t that serious – his lawyers argued he was simply trying to “expedite the permit process and, in effect, jumped the line.”
But in a court filing in January, federal prosecutors noted that Mohamad "submitted fraudulent inspection reports .... This practice is dangerous and does not protect property owners as the system is set up to do."
Mohamad is scheduled to be sentenced April 5 by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.
Problems in New Orleans
In October 2019, the city of New Orleans banned Mohamad from inspections after the city’s top code official at the time, Zach Smith, caught Mohamad using the same photos for different properties. The Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors also revoked Mohamad’s contractor’s license.
But Kenner let Mohamad keep doing building inspections there, even after he admitted to felonies in connection with falsified inspections.
Initially, the city took the position that it didn’t have the authority to stop Mohamad, because he doesn’t work for Kenner; he works for IECI & Associates, a firm hired by contractors to sign off on their work.
Also, Mohamad is still registered as an inspector with the Louisiana State Unified Construction Code Council. The LSUCCC says it can’t revoke an inspector’s registration without a formal complaint filed with the State Fire Marshal, even if the inspector has been convicted of a felony.
With only one in-house inspector, Kenner almost always grants completion certificates to construction work that passes final inspection by IECI.
“Other than the city having an inspector to inspect the inspectors, I don’t know what the city can do,” Power said.
In Schultz’s view, Kenner has a duty to make sure third-party inspections are done right.
“And if they have reason to believe that that report is not valid or that there are some issues associated with the validity of the report or the inspections, that they have a duty to do their own inspections,” she said.
Also awaiting sentencing in federal court: Brian Medus, the former New Orleans permitting official whom Mohamad bribed and who also worked for IECI and performed at least one inspection in Kenner after his 2021 arrest; and Randy Farrell, IECI’s owner, who is set to be sentenced in June for tax fraud.
Cart before the horse?
Schultz filed the latest criminal complaint against Mohamad last month, after she discovered several problems with the renovation of a house she had a contract to buy on Fairway Street.
Schultz and her husband, Mike, are fighting with their contractor, Robert Gordon, to get out of a promise to buy the house from him and his partners when the project is complete.
Armed with detailed building plans, hundreds of photographs they took during the course of construction, text messages with Gordon and two independent inspection reports that identify “serious defects” and code violations, the Schultzes tried to file a criminal complaint against Gordon. That was quickly dismissed by Kenner police as a civil dispute.
However, when Sherry Schultz received public records from the city in late January showing the permits and safety inspections on the project, she said she discovered more problems. She filed a new criminal complaint Feb. 16 alleging Mohamad gave final approval for the work and caused the city to issue a final inspection certificate before the work was actually finished.
Mohamad gave final approval Dec. 21 for the whole renovation project, filing final inspection reports for the building itself, the gas lines, the electrical system and the plumbing.
The next day, Dec. 22, a clerk in the Kenner Code Enforcement office, where Mohamad used to be the boss, issued a final inspection certificate. But the Schultzes’ time-stamped photos show a trench was dug across the front yard to connect a washing machine drain line to the city sewer system, and it was still empty on Dec. 22.
That same day after Mohamad's final inspection, Gordon, the contractor, texted Mike Schultz to say he was still looking for another plumber to lay the sewer pipe. In another text on Dec. 22, Gordon said an air conditioning condenser unit still had to be installed the following week, at least five days after Mohamad's final mechanical inspection.
Inspections expert weighs in
Frank Morris, an inspection code consultant in Texas who trains and advises inspectors in Louisiana and other Southern states, reviewed the photos and texts. He said the code requires plumbing to be tied into a city sewer system or, alternatively, an approved private sewer, before it can pass a final inspection. He also said the code requires a condenser to be connected and charged to pass a final mechanical inspection.
“The inspections were not properly done and thoroughly done, if they were even done at all,” Morris said.
Mohamad’s criminal defense attorney, David Courcelle, said Mohamad “properly performed all required inspections. The trench was dug and the pipe was installed prior to inspection. Also, the A/C condenser was on site and inspected on December 21st."
Courcelle said the contractor and subcontractors contend the sewer pipe was not visible in photos from the evening of Dec. 21 and Dec. 22 because it was buried under dirt. Other photos on Dec. 27 and 28, however, show the pipe in the open trench, uncovered by dirt.
Another photograph from Dec. 23 shows a garbage disposal waiting to be installed under a sink with no drain pipes visible. Gordon’s attorney, Vance Ott, said the plumber had removed the drain pipes while preparing to add the garbage disposal. Morris said it looked to him as if it had never been plumbed, and if the pipes had fallen below the house, it meant they weren’t properly secured and should not have passed Mohamad’s inspection.
But the problems and lack of city oversight on the Fairway Street renovation began before Mohamad ever got involved as an inspector, Morris said. Kenner issued Gordon a permit on July 5 for $45,000 in “Hurricane Ida repairs (of) roof, sheetrock, insulation, floors, paint.” At that point, the Schultzes’ photos show the inside of the house had already been completely gutted and a load-bearing wall had been removed. Sherry Schultz said they ended up paying $73,000 for work on the house prior to backing out on the purchase.
Ott said his clients have tried repeatedly to resolve the dispute under the terms of a purchase agreement Sherry Schultz wrote herself. “Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Schultz have rejected every such effort,” Ott said. “Therefore, my client will not attempt to respond to all of the false allegations Ms. Schultz is attempting to support with false and misleading statements and photographs that do not provide context.”
Also, the plumbing permit was submitted under one contractor’s name for repairs to a few fixtures. But photos and text messages show the entire home’s plumbing was redone, new sewer lines were laid to connect to the street and a different plumber – who did not have a state contractor’s license – actually did the work. Under state law, plumbers must have a state commercial contractor’s license to work on construction projects that cost more than $10,000.
When Mohamad filed the initial “rough-in” inspection on Fairway Street in October, he listed the plumber who actually did the work, Ricky Frught. The city wrote IECI an email saying “wrong contractor.” Instead of raising questions, the city supplied the name of the contractor with the permit and Mohamad changed his inspection report.
Frught said in a message shared with WWL-TV by Ott that he failed to renew his license after it expired in 2021 because his father was ill.
“I will renew as soon as possible,” Frught said.
Ott said the project became more extensive than originally planned but Gordon did not have to file for a new permit or submit plans for a whole-house renovation. He said the only additional document Gordon had to file with the city was engineer-stamped plans to remove a load-bearing wall. He said Gordon did that, but Kenner certified it does not have any such record on file.
The independent inspectors the Schultzes hired raised serious concerns about the structural integrity of the building, alleging the roof is sagging, the bracing used to replace the load-bearing wall is inadequate and required ventilation is missing in the foundation. When the Schultzes backed out of purchasing the home, it went on the market for nearly $400,000 with a property disclosure statement that noted no known defects. On Feb. 16, the same day Sherry Schultz filed the criminal complaint, the owners changed the disclosure statement to note plumbing defects, repairs and some roof deflection.
Ott said the disclosure “was amended to simply provide as much information to prospective purchasers as possible” and “address any complaints or allegations that Ms. Schultz made,” which Ott said she leveled “as a pretext for her breach of contract.”
“The city of Kenner has done nothing to … use its powers and discharge its duty to make sure that the code is followed and to have these matters corrected before an innocent family purchases this home unknowingly,” Schultz said. “And God forbid someone gets injured or killed a couple of years down the road.”
Gordon Russell of The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate contributed to this report.
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