NEW ORLEANS — The first building inspector convicted in a sweeping federal corruption probe of New Orleans’ permitting office was sentenced to 30 months in prison Thursday for bribery.
Kevin Richardson was a building inspector in the Safety & Permits Department from 2007 to 2015, but admitted in 2019 that he had taken $65,000 in bribes to falsify inspections he never actually conducted or to wipe away violations he found during inspections he did conduct.
He also admitted in his 2019 guilty plea that he continued to pay bribes to another city permitting official to approve permits for contractors into 2017, two years after he was suspended and left city government.
Still, he told U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan on Thursday that he turned his life around after leaving City Hall.
“I sincerely apologize and hope that my actions didn’t cause harm to anybody,” Richardson said at his sentencing hearing Thursday, which was held over Zoom. “Since that time, I’ve done a lot of things positive as it relates to ministering to peoples lives. I knew I couldn’t go on getting that money. I was suspended and walked away because I didn’t want to continue like that.”
The specter of the Hard Rock Hotel collapse cast a large shadow over the Richardson case, even though he left the permitting office four years before the fatal construction failure on Oct. 12, 2019. Richardson was indicted on Sept. 13, 2019, and officials admonished inspectors at an emergency meeting Sept. 16 that they had to actually show up to perform inspections.
A WWL-TV investigation of inspectors’ GPS data found that later that same day, the inspector on the Hard Rock Hotel construction project, Julie Tweeter, filed an inspection report without stopping her city vehicle at the site long enough to view the work. The GPS records also showed she failed to stop at the Hard Rock on Oct. 1, when she approved the final concrete pour on the 18th floor rooftop.
That pour was completed Oct. 5. The top floors pancaked and killed three workers one week later. The Inspector General’s Office recommended criminal charges against Tweeter and two other inspectors for allegedly fabricating their inspection reports at the Hard Rock.
Less than two weeks after the collapse, Richardson came to federal prosecutors and pled guilty.
Richardson’s defense attorney, John Hall Thomas, appealed to Morgan for leniency.
“He accepted responsibility very early in the case and done everything to help the government,” he said. “He’s made an effort to mitigate the harm he’s recognized he caused.”
Since Richardson’s guilty plea in October 2019, another city inspector and two third-party inspectors have been charged with federal crimes and a fourth inspector, Richardson’s former boss Larry Chan, was charged with falsifying inspections in Jefferson Parish.
But whatever help Richardson offered prosecutors in those cases did not convince Morgan to dip below the federal sentencing guidelines for Richardson’s sentence.
“We all know what harm can occur if a building is declared to be compliant when it is not,” Morgan said at sentencing, an apparent reference to the Hard Rock tragedy although she never actually mentioned it by name. “It’s a crime that places many, many members of the public in grave danger, including children and the elderly. This is not a victimless crime.”
Richardson must also serve one year of supervised release and was ordered to surrender to prison in 60 days.