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S&WB ousts two officials after confirming findings of WWL-TV investigation

Plumbing Department chief Jay Arnold resigned and inspector Vernon Marcotte was fired last week after WWL-TV exposed self-dealing and double-dipping last fall.

NEW ORLEANS — Two Sewerage and Water Board officials have been ousted in response to an exclusive WWL-TV investigation last fall that found government employees in charge of plumbing inspections and permits in the city of New Orleans were involved in a web of self-dealing with private contractors and other city building inspectors.

Jay Arnold resigned as the head of the Sewerage and Water Board’s Plumbing Department last Thursday, the agency confirmed Wednesday. Documents provided to WWL-TV also show one of Arnold’s top deputies, Plumbing Inspection Supervisor Assistant Vernon Marcotte, was fired the same day.

Neither man responded to calls requesting comments Wednesday.

WWL-TV reported Nov. 3 that Arnold and Marcotte had used hundreds of gas installation permits over recent years to collect tens of thousands of dollars in extra pay for private work that was done while they were working at the Sewerage and Water Board, often by plumbers who didn’t have the proper gasfitter license.

Within hours of the story airing, the FBI raided the Plumbing Department to seize all the open permit and inspection records Arnold and Marcotte controlled. The next day, the Sewerage and Water Board launched an internal investigation of the department and suspended Arnold and Marcotte without pay, saying the conduct outlined by WWL-TV “may constitute violations of the Louisiana Code of Ethics and/or payroll fraud.”

At the time, Sewerage and Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban said he had not seen warnings from City Hall and from the State Licensing Board for Contractors about Arnold and Marcotte’s actions. Korban said he didn’t understand the “enormity” of the situation until WWL-TV questioned it in October.

“There certainly was a lack of understanding and appreciation to the scale of what was going on,” Korban said. “And no excuse whatsoever had I known what I knew today, I would certainly have acted differently at the time. I just didn’t.”

After ousting both employees, Korban issued a statement Wednesday.

“Mr. Marcotte and Mr. Arnold are no longer employees of the Sewerage and Water Board, however, that is not the final resolution. We are committed to assessing any malpractices and misuse of ratepayers’ funds in order to hold them both accountable. We also are focusing on lessons learned in order to avoid this from happening again.”

Last week, Korban sent a termination letter to Marcotte detailing the internal investigation’s findings. It says Marcotte failed to show for a disciplinary hearing earlier this month where he could have offered a defense.

“You fraudulently filed for gas work permits for which someone other than yourself performed the permitted work,” it says.

It also alleges Marcotte violated state Ethics Laws and the Sewerage and Water Board’s Professional Conduct Policy, accusing him of “abuse of power” and “accepting anything of value” from 2017 to 2021.

The WWL-TV investigation uncovered documents and timestamped photos showing Marcotte, appearing as the gas contractor at city mechanical inspections, during business hours on days when he claimed eight hours of work on his Sewerage and Water Board timesheets.

Marcotte told WWL-TV in October that he did those gas inspections on his lunch breaks.

But the Sewerage and Water Board internal investigation found otherwise, with Marcotte’s termination letter citing “an overlap period of (Marcotte) being on company time while either filing permit applications or having permitted work inspected by a city inspector.”

Marcotte’s public salary was about $57,000 and Arnold’s was $104,000.

As the head of the Plumbing Department, Arnold was an exempt employee, so he did not have to report his hours on timesheets the same way Marcotte did. The Sewerage and Water Board and the New Orleans Civil Service Commission did not provide any documentation detailing the findings of the internal investigation into Arnold.

Arnold spoke to WWL-TV by phone in October but did not grant the station an interview.

Marcotte did grant an interview on Oct. 26 and acknowledged he had not actually performed the hundreds of gas installation jobs he had permits for. He said he was just filing permits on behalf of plumbers who lacked the proper gasfitter’s license.

“I was just filing permits. Back then, you know, I just … was filing the permit to have it done. And then a licensed plumber would put in (the gas lines),” he said, adding that the requirements for getting a city gasfitter license were “too onerous” for most plumbers.

Marcotte’s termination letter from the Sewerage and Water Board also accuses him of an “undisclosed conflict of interest” forgetting his gas permits inspected by an unnamed city inspector who was also a licensed plumber. The WWL-TV investigation found that Buddy Fraiche, a City Hall mechanical inspector, approved most of the work done under Marcotte’s permits.

Fraiche also owned a plumbing company and served as the qualified license holder for another, and both received plumbing permits and inspections from Arnold’s staff at Sewerage and Water Board. After WWL-TV’s story aired, city permitting director Tammie Jackson said Fraiche was double-dipping, working his private plumbing jobs without proper authorization.

Fraiche resigned from the city and the state contractor’s board stripped him of his plumbing license. He declined to comment to WWL-TV after his state disciplinary hearing except to say he had resigned.

RELATED: Building inspectors, contractor being arrested for allegedly falsifying reports

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