NEW ORLEANS — The FBI raided the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board's main office on Friday, just hours after WWL-TV exposed a web of self-dealing by S&WB officials, city inspectors, and contractors.
The Sewerage & Water Board confirmed that the raid focused on records in the S&WB's plumbing department, which was featured in the station's exclusive investigation Thursday night.
It laid out a complex web of self-dealing, where Sewerage & Water Board plumbing inspectors, city gas inspectors and contractors use each other's licenses and inspect each other's jobs.
One Sewerage & Water Board plumbing inspector, Vernon Marcotte, admitted to WWL-TV that he used his license as a gasfitter to help plumbers -- the same plumbers he regulates -- get potentially dangerous work on gas lines without the proper license.
"I was just filing permits. "I just was filing the permit to have it done. And then a licensed plumber would put in."
He said he did it to help plumbers who didn't have the required gasfitter license or hadn't renewed it when it expired.
"A lot of master plumbers don't want to fool with it," Marcotte said. "I mean, it's just too onerous. And so, I would file permit for them to go ahead and do their work."
Marcotte's boss, Utility Services Administrator Jay Arnold, uses a similar arrangement to get hundreds of private gas installation jobs while making his $104,000 salary at the Sewerage and Water Board, according to inspection documents and photographs gathered over months by WWL-TV.
The FBI moved quickly after WWL-TV's report because the plumbing records Arnold controls exist entirely on paper and index cards, something the city's Inspector General criticized in 2019 and the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors blasted earlier this year.
“For a city this large to have such a large, visible, and often criticized department that operates on what can only be described as index cards, file cabinets and such, it makes it almost impossible to for state investigators, or the public, to find information on projects,” said a letter from the state agency’s investigative section to the Sewerage & Water Board leadership.
Sewerage and Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban condemned "any illegal or unethical activity" by employees and said in a statement that the agency is "in full cooperation."
But the contractors' licensing board, which has worked with the FBI on a sweeping permit fraud case for years, said in its letter in January that the plumbing department "could be easily described as obstructionist to this agency, the state agency whose sole responsibility it is to regulate and protect the public in these matters."
The State Fire Marshal's Office has repeatedly advised the S&WB that its plumbing inspectors are not properly certified, but not until the WWL-TV story did Korban say the agency is in the process of making sure the inspectors in Arnold's department are certified.
The agency also changed its policy on side-work by inspectors in response to the WWL-TV story, now prohibiting them from receiving any private business connecting gas, water or electrical at properties in Orleans Parish.
In light of the scathing letter from the contractor's licensing board investigators in January, as well as other complaints about Arnold and Marcotte's gas permits from the city, City Councilman Joe Giarrusso said it's time for Korban and other S&WB leaders to explain why action wasn't taken earlier.
"The FBI... wants to get the paper documents as quickly as possible so they can't be destroyed," Giarrusso said. "But I think not only does that investigation have to happen, but then it's also two separate pieces: Piece No. 1 is what investigation was done when things were brought to light and why not? And then what is the reform that needs to happen as a result of this?"
WWL-TV has been tracking gas-permit irregularities for months, using a database of thousands of permits and inspections based on documents and photographs from the city's One-Stop database. WWL-TV reviewed hundreds of jobs that involved serious legal and safety concerns, including some that passed inspection in spite of not complying with international safety codes.
► Get breaking news from your neighborhood delivered directly to you by downloading the new FREE WWL-TV News app now in the IOS App Store or Google Play.