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Who's Watching the Watchdog? | Corruption, payroll irregularities reported in N.O. Inspector General's office

“I don't know what to call that except a big failure ... It's worse than ironic. It's shameful.”

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Inspector General’s office is designed to act on tips from whistle-blowers on where to look for waste and fraud in city government. But under outgoing Inspector General Derry Harper, some whistle-blowers came from inside the office, blowing the whistle on him.

After several people complained to Harper’s supervisor, the Ethics Review Board, an internal investigation was launched. According to multiple sources inside and outside the IG’s office, the inquiry gathered numerous reports about Harper’s absenteeism, lack of engagement and poor productivity.

Shortly after the report was discussed during a lengthy closed door meeting of the board on Sept. 4, Harper announced his retirement.

“The board obviously was getting information from a number of different sources and from its own observations about the lack of productivity,” ERB attorney Dane Ciolino said.

While Harper maintains that his departure from the $200,000-a-year job was voluntary, Ethics Review Board Chairman Mike Cowan offered a different account.

“All board members found Mr. Harper’s absenteeism disturbing and unacceptable,” Ethics Review Board Chairman Mike Cowan said. “That said, some members felt that he must resign or be discharged, others were open to corrective action of some kind.”

While turmoil inside the office has remained largely hidden, some red flags surfaced during Harper’s tenure. Civil Service Department records show that early on, Harper dealt with an internal complaint about discrimination inside the office.

As a hired consultant looked into that complaint, veteran investigator Gordon Hyde tried to approach Harper about corruption in the office. Hyde was then fired for insubordination when he tape-recorded a conversation with Harper in violation of his orders.

Over the past couple of months, WWL-TV gathered information about other problems. One was glaring and ongoing.

City records show that the IG's office manager, Jessica Lang, has enjoyed a lucrative and unusual job arrangement.

The records show that since 2015 Lang has been dividing her duties between two full-time jobs: OIG office manager, paying $38,914 annually and Executive Director of the Ethics Review Board, paying $72,420 annually. The Ethics Board is the volunteer body that oversees the Inspector General's office.

Despite the impossibility of being in two places at once, on paper Lang worked for both. Until the beginning of 2019.

“Mr. Harper insisted that she become a full-time employee of the Office of Inspector General rather than sharing time with the Ethics Review Board,” Ciolino said.

At Harper's request, board attorney Dane Ciolino, the only other paid employee of the ERB, ended Lang's duties.

Or so he thought.

Records show that Lang's double titles, and double salaries, did not end. Civil service pay records show that Lang's continued to earn a double salary that stood at $110,481 a year, among the highest salaries of any classified employee in the city.

“She does no work for the ERB,” Cowan said. “It can't be justified.”

Cowan said he was unaware of the payroll irregularity until WWL-TV brought it to his attention.

“It's very upsetting,” he responded when told about the arrangement.

Ciolino said he, too,  was blindsided by the information.

“Yeah, I didn't believe you,” Ciolino said. “And I called the CAO's office and came to learn that she, in fact, was still on our rolls.”

City payroll time sheets show Lang splitting her days between the two positions, three hours for one job, four hours for the other on the same day. But instead of split salaries, she was getting paid two full-time salaries.

Lang’s unusual job arrangement prompted the question: What was she doing for the Ethics Review Board?

Ciolino provided a concise answer.

“After the beginning of 2019, she stopped doing all formal tasks for the ERB,”  he said.

Cowan said the board has launched an inquiry to determine how the situation went unnoticed for nearly two years.

“Our counsel is dealing with this right now,” Cowan said.

RELATED: New Orleans Inspector General Derry Harper to retire amid discussions to fire him

Lang's arrangement was not allowed to continue. One day after WWL-TV brought it to the board's attention, Ciolino sent Lang a letter of termination on Oct. 14, effective immediately.

In an interview Friday, Harper addressed the Lang payroll issue. He said he inherited the unusual split-job arrangement from the previous IG and he tried to figure out a way to correct it.

“Almost immediately, we started trying to unravel that,” Harper said. “Not to do anything that wasn't transparent, but in order to just directly tell her, you're not to do any work for the Ethics Review Board.”

But while Harper may have pulled Lang away from any ERB duties, her double-job, double-pay job arrangement did not end. Harper did not have an answer for why the classification continued until it was brought to the board’s attention by WWL-TV.

“You're saying something that I'll have to go and look into,” he said.

PART ONE: Who's Watching the Watchdog? | Staff mutiny, Absenteeism lead to departure of New Orleans Inspector General

Among city officials, confidence in Harper eroded long before the internal issues started to surface publicly. Things got so bad, some city officials flat-out gave up trying to work with the office. City Council member-at-large Helena Moreno is among those who began bypassing Harper.

“We have called and called, they don't answer.” Moreno said.

Council member Joe Giarrusso said when the IG did issue reports, he found many of them irrelevant and unresponsive to the most serious issues facing the city.

“The bottom line was there have only been a couple of reports, almost all of which were either stale completely or significantly,” Councilman Joe Giarrusso said. 

Harper admitted that his office didn’t operate at anything close to peak efficiency. He said blamed that, in part, on the problems he inherited and on staff vacancies that hampered the production of reports.

“Because we didn't have senior leadership to supervise the division, there was no permanent general counsel,” Harper said. “We even lost the interim general counsel at the end of 2018, and the office was unable to release several reports.”

Cowan said that as the ERB launches a national search for a new inspector general, work must be done to repair the agency’s image and reputation.

In particular, Cowan said the payroll irregularities surrounding Lang are “appalling” for an agency designed to root out waste, fraud and corruption.

“I don't know what to call that except a big failure,” Cowan said. “It's worse than ironic. It's shameful.”

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