NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board hired a prominent criminal defense attorney to advise the agency on how to deal with “several subpoenas to testify before a federal grand jury … in connection with criminal investigations being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” according to a contract announced this week.
The move by the Sewerage and Water Board to pay criminal defense attorney Billy Gibbens $450 an hour, and up to $15,000 a year, raises questions about why a local government agency can’t simply cooperate with the federal government without hiring an outside lawyer.
First, the new contract began Jan. 30, nearly 15 months after the FBI already raided the Sewerage and Water Board’s Plumbing Department and seized all inspections and permits for plumbing work done in New Orleans.
Second, Gibbens has earned a reputation for successfully fighting against the FBI and federal prosecutors. He rose to prominence more than a decade ago by exposing an online commenting scandal that stopped a years-long FBI investigation in its tracks and forced out then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and two of his top deputies. Gibbens has gone on to win rare acquittals for high-profile defendants, including Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams in his tax fraud trial last summer.
The contract says the board’s in-house attorneys “lack expertise in federal and state criminal investigations and litigation,” and need outside counsel, “for consultation.”
In January, Sewerage and Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban signed the contract with Schonekas, Evans, McGoey & McEachin, where Gibbens is a partner. But the agreement wasn’t announced to the board until this Wednesday. Contracts valued under $1 million do not need to come to the board for approval.
Sewerage and Water Board spokeswoman Grace Birch said in a statement the agency is, “fully cooperating with the government,” but wouldn’t say more about why it needs a criminal defense attorney to do so.
“Neither the Sewerage and Water Board nor any of its employees are under investigation, and our personnel have been contacted as witnesses only,” Birch said.
It also denied WWL-TV’s public records request for the subpoenas it received or any communications about them, claiming they can’t be disclosed under federal criminal procedures. But those procedures do not apply to subpoena recipients, who are free to disclose them and to discuss whatever they testify about in front of a grand jury.
As a state agency, the Sewerage and Water Board must comply with the Louisiana Public Records Act, which doesn’t have any special exemptions allowing agencies to deny the public access to federal subpoenas they might receive or information they might have about federal criminal investigations.
Gibbens did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
The FBI raided the Plumbing Department in November 2021, hours after WWL-TV exposed a web of self-dealing by the head of that department, Jay Arnold, along with plumbing inspector Vernon Marcotte and former New Orleans mechanical inspector Buddy Fraiche. All three were fired after our months-long investigation showed the government inspectors working on the side as private construction contractors and inspecting each other’s work.
All aspects of construction – except for plumbing – are regulated by the city’s Safety and Permits Department. For decades, plumbing permits and safety inspections have been handled by the Sewerage and Water Board using a paper-only filing system. FBI agents had to use a moving truck to collect boxes of plumbing records from filing cabinets, leaving the agency with no record of the work it’s supposed to oversee.
When WWL-TV requested copies of public plumbing records after the raid, the FBI had to take photographs of the paperwork and sent the images to the Sewerage and Water Board so it could produce the records.
After our investigation in November 2021, the city promised to consolidate all permits and inspections, including plumbing, under the city’s Safety and Permits Department. Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano said the city department will take that responsibility starting when new, renovated permitting offices open in Orleans Tower across from City Hall, likely in May or June.