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Investigators suggest felony charges for Hard Rock inspector

The investigative report on former city inspector Julie Tweeter was turned over to District Attorney Jason Williams last Wednesday.

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans inspector general’s office has filed a long-delayed report with the district attorney recommending felony charges against a former city building inspector who was supposed to check on work at the Hard Rock Hotel before it collapsed in October 2019.

The investigative report on former city inspector Julie Tweeter was turned over to District Attorney Jason Williams last Wednesday.

The investigative report includes GPS data from Tweeter’s city vehicle and daily logs from the construction project’s superintendent indicating she failed to show up at the construction site at least eight times when her inspection reports claimed she did.

The report recommends charging Tweeter with felony counts of filing false public records and malfeasance in office for each of the eight occurrences. In some cases, it says Tweeter filed inspection reports on days when the construction superintendent for Citadel Builders wrote in his daily log "no city inspector for pour" or "sent pictures to city inspector for pour."

Tweeter’s attorney Herb Larson said he wants to see the report first before commenting, but said, “I’ve not seen anything that she’s done that would justify prosecution in any way.”

Williams said he was dissatisfied with the report being focused on one city employee, especially after so much time has passed. He said Michel promised him reports on two more city inspectors by this Wednesday, but the DA sent a letter to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requesting its final report on the cause of the collapse.

“A building falling down and killing people and injuring others on Canal Street is a much larger issue than one employee at City Hall,” Williams said.

“We are not going to let it rest on a city employee alone if there are people who made money because corners were cut. This should not have happened.”

He declined to comment about the charges recommended by the inspector general.

“The OIG has made their recommendation. And they did it with about 15 pages of a report. We’ll see what’s in the other two reports that are forthcoming that we should be getting Wednesday. And we’ll also see what’s in this OSHA report. But we’re going to be looking at emails, looking at any laptops that were at this site, anything that was in the custody and control over decisions that were made about what happened leading up to the collapse.”

The report cites a WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate investigation from February 2020 that identified at least six instances in 2019 when Tweeter filed inspection reports for the Hard Rock and GPS data indicated she did not stop for any significant length of time near the construction site.

City policy states that inspectors must appear in-person to perform inspections. In an audio recording of a city inspector’s meeting held Sept. 16, 2019, Zachary Smith, then-director of the city’s Safety and Permits Department, exhorted his employees to follow the city policy by showing up at all inspections, filing reports in real-time using a cell phone app and taking their own photographs of construction work.

The recording, obtained exclusively by WWL-TV, includes references to Tweeter being in attendance. Later that same day, she reported inspecting the Hard Rock even though GPS on her city vehicle indicated it only stopped within two blocks of the Hard Rock for 6 minutes, not enough time to walk to the site and do an inspection.

The inspector general's report specifically cites the WWL-TV story and quotes from the recording to show that Tweeter and other inspectors knew they had to show up for inspections.

Kristen Morales, an investigator for the Inspector General’s Office, conducted the investigation of Tweeter and other city inspectors in early 2020. But Interim IG Ed Michel fired her in January 2021 and had to recreate much of her investigative work. That took seven months, and the IG's report shows new interviews of Smith and the construction superintendent Tim Thornton were not conducted until February 2021.

The final report took a lot longer than the DA and City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer anticipated. Two weeks ago, they went on WWL-TV to urge the inspector general to finish its report as soon as possible, ahead of two-year deadlines for filing misdemeanor charges coming up in October. But potential felony charges for filing false public records and malfeasance in office have a four-year statute of limitations, giving Williams’ prosecutors plenty of time to build a case.

Family members of the three men killed in the collapse – Quinnyon Wimberly, Jose Ponce Arreola and Anthony Magrette – are also upset by the delays. Wimberly’s family appeared in front of the DA’s office Monday evening to urge quick action and better communication with the victims.

Wimberly’s mother, Irene, said she did not want Williams to wait for all of the reports on the cause of the collapse before pursuing criminal charges.

Most of Tweeter’s inspections of the Hard Rock were so-called “slab inspections,” to review steel and metal subfloors to make sure they were ready for concrete to be poured into them. The last of those inspections was recorded on Oct. 1, to review the subfloor of the 18th-floor rooftop.

GPS data showed Tweeter never stopped her city vehicle near the Hard Rock that day, but gave approval to pour the concrete on the rooftop. The construction crew did just that on Oct. 4. A little more than a week later the upper floors gave way, crushing three workers to death and injuring dozens.

The city inspection reports also included photographs that Tweeter was supposed to have taken in person, but allegedly were provided by the construction team instead when she didn’t show up.

After the WWL-TV reports in February 2020, the city suspended Tweeter, along with two other building inspectors who also allegedly failed to show up at the Hard Rock for some inspections. Tweeter and Eric Treadaway resigned or retired while under suspension. Thomas Dwyer retired shortly before the suspension was issued.

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