NEW ORLEANS — In January 2020, City Councilman Jason Williams called for a public hearing in hopes of holding someone accountable for the horrific Hard Rock Hotel construction collapse that had killed three workers in October 2019.
But the city's inspector general asked Williams to stand down and let his office handled the investigation instead.
Now, a year and a half later, Williams is the district attorney and has assembled a team to file potential criminal charges based on the findings of the IG and other agencies.
But he's still waiting for the Inspector General’s Office and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to produce reports so he can start building prosecutions, and he may be running out of time because of legal deadlines to file certain criminal charges within two years.
Williams didn't want to speculate about specific criminal charges he could pursue, but prosecutors generally have two years to file misdemeanor charges, four years to file felony charges.
“We are working with a short window to go through a lot of material,” Williams said in an interview with WWL-TV. “Close to three months (before the two-year anniversary of the collapse, Oct. 12). And as I told you before, we don't have a single piece of paper that's been referred to us as of yet.”
City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer also says she’s waited long enough for the IG’s office to conclude its investigation of the Hard Rock Hotel collapse.
Palmer represents the area where the 18-story steel and concrete structure pancaked, causing death, injury, adjacent property damage and the major intersection at Canal and Rampart streets to remain closed for almost two years. She sent a letter to interim Inspector General Ed Michel on July 7 asking specific questions about the status of the investigation and giving him until July 16 to respond.
Having received none, Palmer’s office invited the interim inspector general to testify at a council committee hearing Thursday, to answer why it’s taken so long for his investigators to produce a report Williams could use to bring possible criminal charges.
“I would really like them to release a report or an explanation even why they cannot release the report and what the timeline is moving forward,” Palmer said. “I think not only do the families (of killed construction workers Jose Ponce Arreola, Quinyonn Wimberly and Anthony Magrette) need closure, I think the city needs closure. We need to figure out how to how to move on.”
Walter Becker, general counsel for the Inspector General’s Office, said Michel did not receive Palmer’s letter until this Tuesday and the interim inspector general will be out of town and unable to attend the City Council committee hearing Thursday.
Williams said he, too, has been trying for months to get any kind of investigative report from the inspector general or from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which issued safety violations against several construction contractors last year but has declined requests for a more detailed final report before cited companies have a chance to appeal their citations.
Williams said he’s been told the IG can’t share OSHA’s report under a formal cooperation agreement between the two investigative agencies. But he said he’s not bound by that and will subpoena the OSHA report if the federal agency doesn’t cooperate.
“We need this report and I would hope that we would have a good amount of voluntary support to get to the bottom of why this building collapsed and who was responsible for it and who should have caught it,” the DA said.
Williams said he met with the IG’s office in mid-June and they promised him a final report within two weeks. Two weeks later, on July 2, the DA sent a letter to Michel complaining that he had not received "a single document from any agency related to the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel."
It’s been three more weeks and Williams said he still hasn’t received anything. He’s baffled.
“The idea that you would investigate something in perpetuity and hold on to it,” he said, “I mean, it sort of defeats the purpose of an inquiry.”
Criminal charges over what may have caused the collapse are sure to be complicated and that’s what the OSHA report is expected to lay out. Less complex are issues involving city building inspectors who allegedly falsified reviews of the Hard Rock construction work prior to the collapse.
That’s what the IG’s lead investigator, Kristen Morales, was focused on. But she was fired in January for several alleged administrative offenses that appear to have nothing to do with her investigative work.
Palmer, Williams and others said they were informed that Morales had concluded her investigation of possible criminal wrongdoing in the Hard Rock case before she was fired.
“It has been more than six months since the Morales Report was shelved,” Palmer wrote in the July 7 letter to Michel. “This provides ample time to reproduce any of the interviews or investigatory data that were in question.”
Becker said Michel and Palmer had a “very productive conversation about her letter” Wednesday but declined to say anything more about it.
Becker also said Michel has been talking with Williams and “additional meetings are scheduled in the very near future.”
Morales’ investigation focuses on three former city building inspectors – Julie Tweeter, Eric Treadaway and Thomas Dwyer – who approved construction work at the Hard Rock prior to the collapse allegedly by falsifying public inspection records.
A joint investigation by WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate in February 2020 found those inspectors filed reports staying they went to the construction site on days when GPS tracking of their city vehicles indicated they did not stop at or near the Hard Rock.
Palmer is calling for accountability while running for an at-large seat on the City Council. As a district councilperson in 2011, she wrote the ordinance that gave the developers of the project at 1031 Canal St. special permission to build a structure almost three times higher than the area limit.
Recently, she led the council in a unanimous vote to rescind the so-called “conditional use” permit, which Palmer said should prevent lead developer Mohan Kailas from pursuing his ongoing plans to rebuild the Hard Rock Hotel at the corner of Canal and Rampart streets.