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One year after Hard Rock collapse, fixing New Orleans' Safety & Permits Dept. still a challenge

CAO Gilbert Montano said it’s been hard to hire new people and fill vacancies.

NEW ORLEANS — A year after the deadly Hard Rock Hotel collapse brought downtown New Orleans to a screeching halt, a city plan to completely overhaul building inspections has barely materialized.

Early this year, a WWL-TV investigation tracked the whereabouts of city inspectors by following the GPS data on their city vehicles and found them approving important construction work at the Hard Rock Hotel before it collapsed without showing up at the site.

The investigation found this affected several other major building projects, in addition to the ill-fated Hard Rock, where the top floors pancaked on Oct. 12, 2019, killing three workers. In dozens of cases, the inspectors’ GPS tracking on their vehicles showed they were nowhere near a location when they claimed to have conducted in-person inspections.

Those findings came shortly after a former city building inspector pleaded guilty in federal court to taking bribes to falsify inspections. That led city Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano to demote the head of the Safety & Permits Department and promise a major shakeup, with new outside audit functions and a director of regulations and licensing.

But seven months later, Montano said it’s been hard to hire new people and fill vacancies.

“Most of the positions we've been advertising since March have not been applied for,” Montano said.

Montano demoted Safety and Permits Director Zach Smith in March, but kept him on as the only certified Chief Building Official in City Hall, a position necessary for any government to perform building inspections. City Hall hasn’t been able to find a replacement, getting only one application from someone Civil Service deemed unqualified, Montano said.

“If there's any qualified candidates out there, I think it's a great opportunity,” he said.

The city still is still trying to fill 14 vacancies for inspectors after firing three in the wake of the scandal and watching others retire. Meanwhile, building activity is only slightly down in the 12 months since the Hard Rock collapse than it was in the year before, dropping from 35,477 permit applications from October 2018 to October 2019 to 28,396 in the year since.

Montano said the city has gotten creative to find enough building inspectors with certifications to inspect commercial building projects. He said four inspectors with those certifications from the Vieux Carre Commission and Historic District Landmarks Commission are now pitching in under a new, consolidated Business and External Services Department.

Montano said the city did a “robust internal audit” to make sure the inspectors were following proper protocols.

We asked for the results of that audit last Tuesday. Montano provided us a summary of the audit findings dated Friday.

The audit found 82 percent of its inspection records were in compliance, but still found some instances where inspectors’ vehicles were not at a site when an inspection supposedly happened… or inspection photos were filed a month after the inspection was supposedly done.

The city said it hired former U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s law firm in Philadelphia to do an external audit of Safety and Permits prior to the Hard Rock collapse.

But that report also hasn't materialized.

"Our review of potentially relevant documents has been delayed due to the December 2019 cyberattack," Polite said. "That review process is now underway and may identify circumstances that require further inquiry. Given that our investigation is ongoing, there is no timetable for a final report. We anticipate billing the city at the conclusion of our work."

RELATED: Hard Rock still stands a year after collapse killed 3

RELATED: Fire out collapsed Hard Rock hotel site in New Orleans

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