NEW ORLEANS — Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration acknowledged the Department of Safety & Permits needed a “complete overhaul” last year after a season of scandal – when a federal bribery probe led to the conviction of one building inspector and three others were accused of falsifying inspections at the Hard Rock Hotel construction project before it collapsed on Oct. 12, 2019.
Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano promised a “robust internal audit” last March after a joint investigation by WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate found city building inspectors had failed to stop their GPS-tracked vehicles at one of every three construction sites they claimed to have inspected.
On the first anniversary of the collapse, Montano provided WWL-TV with a summary of that audit, which reviewed 4 percent of more than 16,000 inspections conducted since the Hard Rock collapse and found no-show inspections and questionable documentation had dropped to less than one in five.
The summary said the audit “did not find significant inspection compliance issues internally,” and Montano expressed confidence that inspectors were finally getting the message that their work is critical to construction safety.
“I'm confident that leadership is embracing the new change and then distilling it down to their supervisors and below level,” Montano said on Oct. 12, 2020.
But the TV station later received the full audit results through a public records request, and the picture wasn’t as rosy as Montano and the audit summary had portrayed. The already small sample of 720 inspection files turned out to be what one auditor called a “haphazard” mixture of in-house city inspectors -- with GPS data to track whether they showed up at construction sites -- and private, third-party inspectors -- with no GPS data to track their whereabouts.
“It shows an incohesive, improper audit,” said one of the audit team members, who spoke to WWL-TV on condition of anonymity. “And as the data showed, some of the auditors were looking at certain variables that other auditors weren't. So, it was not a proper, across-the-board, cohesive methodology to determine which inspections were accurate and which ones need (additional) review.”
That’s significant because WWL-TV and the newspaper used GPS tracking data in January 2020 to show that three different city inspectors -- Julie Tweeter, Eric Treadaway and Thomas Dwyer -- had failed to stop their vehicles at the Hard Rock on days when they reported going there to review progress, take photographs and approve the next stage of construction.
For example, GPS showed Tweeter’s vehicle went nowhere near the Hard Rock site on Oct. 1, 2019, when she approved the final pour of concrete on the 18th floor rooftop. It was the last city inspection before the top floors pancaked less than two weeks later, killing three workers and injuring dozens.
Public records show the first city official notified of the collapse by police dispatch was Tweeter, just five minutes after the first emergency call reporting the collapse on the morning of Oct. 12, 2019.
After the news stories, Montano moved to fire Tweeter and Treadaway and officially cited Dwyer for violations, although he had already retired by then. Treadaway resigned. Tweeter appealed her firing but withdrew the appeal and retired.
In early March 2020, Montano called the failures of the city’s Building Division inspectors “unconscionable” and “a travesty.”
But the city now acknowledges that only two members of the four-person internal audit team were familiar with the GPS data used to track inspectors’ city vehicles. Paul Marina, the Safety & Permits vehicle fleet manager, reviewed 222 inspections filed by just three city inspectors, didn’t make a single comment and determined they were all in compliance.
On the other hand, Wesley Pfeiffer, then the head of the Ground Transportation Bureau that inspects taxis and school buses, looked at a larger sample of 359 inspections evenly spread among nine inspectors. He noted 91 GPS issues, such as failure to stop at the inspected location, on one of every four inspections he reviewed.
Pfeiffer’s findings showed a slight improvement from the 2019 data analyzed by WWL-TV and the newspaper. Instead of 33 percent noncompliance, Pfeiffer’s narrow review a year later questioned 25 percent of the inspections -- still clearly significant.
The two members of the audit team who were not trained to review the GPS data only looked at whether third-party inspectors submitted photographs of inspected construction work that complied with city requirements. Those two – then-deputy director of Safety & Permits Debra Hall and IT specialist Lorita Gilbert -- looked at just 139 third-party inspections. That was less than 20 percent of the 720 files reviewed in the audit, even though third-party inspectors conducted 58 percent of all building inspections in New Orleans in 2020.
They identified problems with 35 percent of the third-party inspections they reviewed. Most of those were by a single inspector, Kurt Cavalier from the private company IECI. Hall determined he had repeated the same photographs and inspection tags in multiple apartment units at a single apartment complex.
IECI owner Randy Farrell defended Cavalier’s actions to WWL-TV, saying the use of repetitive photos was not a violation of any city policy and is a common practice while inspecting a large block of identical apartments.
It also appears the city’s audit was rushed so a report could be provided to WWL-TV by Oct. 12, 2020, more than a year after city officials first said they would conduct the audit.
Montano said the audit had been completed in August, but emails by the audit team show they were still trying to settle on the scope and process for the audit on Sept. 22. That’s when the lead auditor, Hall, directed the other three to “look at all the records for the defined timeframe."
On Oct. 1, WWL-TV asked to see the audit and interview Montano about it on Oct. 12, the first anniversary of the Hard Rock collapse. On Oct. 8, Hall emailed the audit team and told them to “update the spreadsheet... with the audit work you have completed/reviewed so far."
The memo summarizing the audit was dated the next day, Oct. 9, the Friday before Montano’s Monday interview with WWL-TV.
“I expressed concern, as well as other auditors on the team, that there wasn't enough time, there wasn't a cohesive methodology put in place, and that this wouldn't be a representation of the overall desire for a proper audit,” the anonymous auditor said.
Hall and Pfeiffer no longer work for the city. The city now says it has "taken this time to audit our own audit."
A statement sent by a city spokesperson says a new deputy director has been hired to replace Hall and will focus on continuously auditing the inspectors’ work. The city's newly restructured Office of Performance and Accountability will audit all third-party inspections, all commercial projects over $10 million and 51 percent of all residential inspections, the city said.