A New Orleans building inspector admitted taking more than $65,000 in bribes from contractors and property owners to look the other way on permit violations or falsify inspections, marking the first domino to fall in what’s expected to be a wide-ranging dragnet in the city’s Safety and Permits office.
Kevin Richardson, 57, who served as a building inspector from 2009 to 2015, admitted in federal court Tuesday that he collected bribes from property owners and contractors, and also paid bribes to at least one other city official to fabricate inspections he never did or to wipe away violations of the city’s building code.
In pleading guilty to one federal count before U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, Richardson also signed an agreement to cooperate with federal investigators and the New Orleans Inspector General’s Office, which sources say has been looking into bribery in the city’s Safety and Permits Department for years.
The wider corruption investigation in the permitting office also raises questions about how city inspectors handled the Hard Rock Hotel construction project before the fatal collapse of its upper floors Oct. 12.
In a document signed by Richardson and federal prosecutors, Richardson admitted collecting at least $65,000 in bribes starting in 2011 and continuing through February 2019, years after he had already left his employment with City Hall.
City records show former Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration suspended Richardson in late 2014 and fired him in early 2015.
Richardson admitted paying at least $3,000 to a single permit analyst inside the Safety and Permits office to get her to approve fraudulent permits. The court document says Richardson caused the permit analyst to alter or delete city documents so property owners and their contractors could get illegal permits.
For example, prosecutors said Richardson used the city’s internet document system in 2014 to create a fake certificate showing a property had been demolished when it was actually still standing. In another example from 2017, after Richardson had left his city job, he paid the permit analyst -- identified as Person A in the court documents – to create a permit for a fire-damaged property without a required document assessing the damage.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the investigation confirmed to WWL-TV that the permit analyst is Richella Maxwell, who was suspended last month by New Orleans Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano “based on an ongoing investigation into (her) involvement in the alleged illegal issuance of city permits,” according to her suspension letter.
The investigative website The Lens reported last week that Maxwell went before the city’s Civil Service Commission to appeal her suspension and her attorney argued that she had never been notified what she allegedly did wrong. An assistant city attorney argued the suspension was warranted to prevent Maxwell from tampering with evidence or obstructing justice, The Lens reported.
Maxwell and her attorney, Brett Pendergrast, could not be reached for comment.
Richardson declined to answer questions from WWL-TV about Maxwell or how many other city employees were involved, but sources tell the station at least four current Safety and Permit Office employees could be implicated.
Montano also suspended the city’s top building official, Larry Chan, in September, for the same reason as Maxwell. He, too, has appealed his suspension.