Saturday, October 31, 2009
Below, we highlight more reasons that the Ethics Review Board has squandered the public trust - questionable hiring practices overseen by the Board.
Executive Director Jill Poutré
If the ERB would serve as a catalytic agent for governmental accountability in New Orleans, no doubt there would need to be strong leadership at its helm. However, based on the recommendation of then Inspector General Robert Cerasoli, the the ERB hired Jill Poutré to serve as its Executive Director, when she was an inexperienced 22 year old college senior, who had not yet graduated. Mr. Cerasoli had been Ms. Poutré’s college instructor. The ERB did not advertise the executive director position even though the salary and benefits come to $90,000/year. The duties of the ERB executive director include management of the budget for the office, handling of evidence, scheduling hearings, reports, and investigations. However, at the time of her hiring, Ms. Poutré had no relevant job experience, and never worked in a full-time professional position. Her previous employment was working part-time at a window treatment business with compensation of $10/hour.
Inspector General Eduoard Quatrevaux
In the wake of Robert Cerasoli’s departure from the Office of Inspector General, the ERB launched a nationwide search to find his replacement. That search ended in early September 2009 with the hiring of Edouard Quatrevaux. As a result of the OIG’s lack of established hiring protocols, there are several major issues with the search and subsequent selection process.
From public records, it appears that the Inspector General position was advertised inconsistently in several places. The Inspector General position that was posted on the Career Builder website in the “Accounting and Audit” area, where many people with accounting backgrounds, but no experience or certification as an Inspector General, applied.
The same can be said for applicants who found the position posted on the Nola.com website, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners website, the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws website, the Association of Local Government Auditors website, and the Institute of Internal Auditors website. Thus, the applications were insufficient. The advertisement instructed applicants to send their résumé, letter of interest, three letters of recommendation, and college transcripts by August 31, 2009.
Overall, it appears that sixty-two (62) of the sixty-four (64) rejected applications were missing one or more critical items. Although the OIG cast a wide net for its job search, it resulted in few qualified applicants. Of the 68 applicants who applied, only four, according to the Ethics Review Board (ERB), were deemed qualified to serve as the Inspector General. According to the ERB, the other 64 applicants “were found ineligible due to lack of Certified Inspector General (CIG) certification and/or inability to meet the four (4) year absence from the City requirement per City Code Sec. 2-1120 (3) (h).” One of the four, Gary Weishaar, does not list CIG certification in his résumé. Another, current IG Quatrevaux, appended his application package on August 21, 2009 to include notification of his CIG certification on that date.
The office announced the hiring of its new IG on September 3, 2009, just three days after the final application deadline.
While the ERB is not responsible for the deficiencies in the majority of the applications, the decision to hire an IG from a weak pool of applicants is entirely an ERB decision. This search, which lasted more than six months, yielded only four qualified candidates. It is understandable that the office was eager to fill its top position in a timely fashion, but the rationale of the hiring committee to make a selection among only four qualified applicants is questionable.
It is unclear how many individuals have CIG status, and how large the pool of individuals qualified for the Inspector General position really is. The designation of CIG status is conferred by the Association of Inspectors General, a national organization of which certified Inspectors General are members. The Association of Inspectors General did not respond when inquired about their program and its former attendees. There is no way to know if a pool of four was representative of only a small number of people being qualified for the post, or if the search simply yielded few results from a much larger pool.
The lingering question is why Mr. Quatrevaux was selected to be interviewed for a position that he did not qualify for, while so many other candidates with equal, if not better qualifications, were not selected to be interviewed. For the public, the issue is whether the OIG has the best person at the helm, and whether there was a level playing field for every non-CIG candidate, like Mr. Quatrevaux, to be interviewed for the position of the Inspector General.
Interim Inspector General David Westerling
The ERB appointed David Westerling – a former Cerasoli colleague in Massachusetts – as the Interim Inspector General during Inspector General Edouard Quatrevaux’s leave of absence. Prior to the appointment, Mr. Westerling (pictured above) worked in the OIG as the Supervisory Forensic Engineer. However, the ERB’s appointment of Mr. Westerling may have violated the Article XIII, Section 2-1120(3)(i) proscription, [n]o officer or employee of the office of the inspector general shall hold office in any political party or political committee, or participate in any political campaign of any candidate for public office, or make any campaign contribution or campaign endorsement, while an officer or employee of the office of inspector general.”
Mr. Westerling was elected to public office as Town Moderator of Harvard, Massachusetts in 2003 and served until June 9, 2008. Westerling back-dated his resignation letter, and his notice to the Harvard Town Hall (written from his home in Harvard) was not received until June 11, 2008 – nine (9) days after he began work at the New Orleans OIG, which is a clear violation of the New Orleans municipal code. Further, there is no evidence he resigned all political affiliation associated with that position.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Loss of Public Trust
The loss of public trust is evidenced by the citizen outcry for complete system reform. To date, many troubling issues have gone unaddressed, including financial reporting by the ERB, concerns of cronyism/favoritism in hiring at ERB and OIG, and staff dysfunction and instability.
The Louisiana Code of Government Ethics, §1124.2.1: "Financial disclosure; members of boards and commissions, requires each member and any designee of a member of a board or commission that has the authority to expend, disburse, or invest ten thousand dollars or more of funds in a fiscal year, to annually file a financial statement as provided by law." Notwithstanding this legal requirement, on October 16, 2008, ERB President Kevin Wildes sought and obtained an Advisory Opinion from the State of Louisiana Board of Ethics that was premised on the ERB’s claim that it “does not have the authority to expend, disburse, or invest $10,000 or more in funds, and does not have the authority to make recommendations that must be followed on the expenditure, disbursement or investment of such funds.”
The ERB’s statement to the Louisiana Board of Ethics was materially false, however. In fact, the ERB and OIG had already received authority to independently expend $300,000 and $3,130,000, respectively, for FY 2008, and $300,000 and $3,197,300 respectively for FY2009.
Furthermore, municipal ordinance proscribes the Mayor and the New Orleans City Council from controlling the ERB and OIG expenditures.
The ERB’s claim that it is exempted from the state law financial reporting requirement is a material breach of trust by the ERB, especially considering the Home Rule Charter and Municipal Code of the City of New Orleans mandate that the ERB is responsible for enforcing a similar reporting requirement for the Mayor, members of the City Council, city department directors, and other high ranking city employees.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Sam Jackson is a housing activist and the founder of the housing rights organization May Day New Orleans. Below is a short discussion with Sam about tomorrow's visit from United Nations Special Rapporteur on Housing Raquel Rolnik.
LJI: What should New Orleanians know about tomorrow's visit from the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing?
Sam: This is a very important visit for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Having these high profile international guests should bring hope to all us concerned about Gulf Coast recovery, because it shows that even if our government doesn't view adequate housing as a human right, maybe there are people around the world that do.
LJI: What is adequate housing?
Sam: Decent housing, low income housing, fair housing. Anything that would make a family comfortable. For instance, folks in New Orleans can't afford to rent right now. We need adequate, affordable housing, so low income folks can have a place to stay.
LJI: What can the UN do to improve conditions on the Gulf Coast?
Sam: I'll be honest with you. The UN cant do anything directly. They can't change US law. They can't bring a lawsuit. But what the UN can do, they can raise questions with the US government about these issues, and bring international pressure on the US to do something. They can raise the issue about doing something to fix some of our laws - like the Stafford Act, which doesn't guarantee any kind of rights to the victims of disasters.
As it is now, we cant get anyone in the government to pay attention to what happened here. So we bring in the UN representatives and let them know what's happening, and then people start to ask, why do we have to get folks from outside the country to come visit us? Why couldn't we get folks from our own government to visit?
That's why we need international pressure. The UN is important for the pressure they bring. And this is not just for New Orleans, this is happening in six cities. This visit has already been a major event in New York and all other places they've been visiting.
LJI: Why should people from New Orleans come out tomorrow night to make their voices heard by the UN?
Sam: I urge people to participate, come out and speak their mind. Folks got human rights. All of us. Folks need to come out to let the world know what happened here. I would say to people: This is your country, most of you have lived for generations and generations here. If you don't fight now, our grandchildren will be going through the same thing. Right now, all around the US, the poor is really left out. This could be a once in a lifetime chance to do something that takes this struggle up to another level.
Tracie can also be seen regularly on the local television show Table Talk with Blayne Bondy and host Paul Beaulieu. You can see the first three episodes online via the Louisiana Justice Institute youtube account at www.youtube.com/user/LAJusticeInstitute.
A Year Of Crisis: A Timeline of Upheaval at New Orleans' Ethics Review Board and Office of Inspector General
Beginning in December 2008 to the present day, the ERB and OIG have been plagued by news headlines and reports evidencing both internal and external upheaval. A brief timeline follows:
∙ December 17, 2008 – OIG releases the Interim Report on the Management of the Administrative Vehicle Fleet, finding that Mayor Ray Nagin's administration violated several state laws and city ordinances governing take-home vehicles, costing taxpayers nearly $1 million.
∙ January 16, 2009 – Controversy erupts with news reports that the OIG requests additional funding to arm its staff with semiautomatic pistols, miniature rifles, laser sighting devices, bulletproof vests, handcuffs and leg irons.
∙ January 29, 2009 – Inspector General Robert Cerasoli abruptly resigns for health reasons. Leonard Odom takes over as Interim Inspector General.
∙ February 27, 2009 – The OIG releases the report Installation of Crime Surveillance Cameras 2003-2008, finding potential violations of federal law.
∙ July 16, 2009 – Interim Inspector General Leonard Odom announces that he has selected the new Independent Police Monitor. After protests by community members claiming the IPM application process was too short, and the search too limited, Odom retracts the selection.
∙ August 5, 2009 – The IPM selection committee intervenes with four applicants, and votes to recommend selection of Neely Moody for the position, despite complaints by community members and two selection committee members.
∙ August 11, 2009 – Interim Inspector General Odom hires Neely Moody to serve as the Independent Police Monitor, and Holly Wiseman as the Deputy Police Monitor.
∙ September 3, 2009 – The ERB selects Edouard Quatrevaux as the new Inspector General. Interim Inspector General Odom is immediately relieved of his duties by the ERB Chairman Kevin Wildes.
∙ September 4, 2009 – Inspector General Quatrevaux announces that Leonard Odom will return to his former position as First Assistant Inspector General for Criminal Investigations.
∙ September 8, 2009 – Leonard Odom resigns his position with the OIG.
∙ September 10, 2009 – Inspector General Quatrevaux announces that the OIG will set up a contract monitoring unit to review city contract solicitations and examine whether bidders have criminal records.
∙ September 12, 2009 – Inspector General Quatrevaux requests and is granted 5-week leave of absence.
∙ September 14, 2009 – ERB Chairman Kevin Wildes appoints OIG staff engineer David Westerling to serve as the Interim Inspector General.
∙ September 16, 2009 - Neely Moody resigns from his position as the Independent Police Monitor, and reportedly threatens to malign the office.
∙ September 17, 2009 – News reports focus on the submission of a report by OIG auditors Susan Brown and Laura East, Assessment of the Transition of the New Orleans Office of Inspector General from Inspector General Robert Cerasoli to Interim Inspector General Leonard Odom on January 30, 2009, to the State of Louisiana Legislative Auditor. The date of the report is August 27, 2009.
∙ September 23, 2009 - New Orleans City Councilman James Carter urges that the search for a new independent police monitor be suspended until the city council develops new selection procedures to address the criticism of the prior selection process.
∙ September 25, 2009 – Interim Inspector General Westerling terminates auditors Susan Brown and Laura East, alleging that they failed to show up to work.
∙ October 4, 2009 – An OIG report, Review of 2009 Budget Process for City of New Orleans, criticizing the city council’s budget practices and priorities, is published online by the Louisiana Justice Institute, a non-governmental organization.
∙ October 6, 2009 – Public records released to the Louisiana Justice Institute show that terminated OIG auditors Susan Brown and Laura East were not AWOL but, in fact, were granted leave to attend the AICPA National Forensic Accounting Conference from September 22 – 25, 2009.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
An article by Katy Reckdahl in today's Times-Picayune reports, "Juveniles at the Youth Study Center will no longer be subject to long hours of confinement, sporadic schooling, spotty medical care and inadequate meals. These improvements are spelled out in two proposed agreements involving the city, which runs the detention facility in Gentilly, and the Orleans Parish School Board, which is responsible for providing educational services to the detainees. The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which filed a federal lawsuit in December 2007 alleging unconstitutional conditions at the Youth Study Center, filed consent decrees in court on Monday after 22 months of negotiations with the city and the School Board."
For further evidence of how bad things have gotten at the facility, the article notes that - as part of the consent agreement: "Facility staff will create a new policy and procedures manual, to replace the one that was lost after the facility flooded."
Apparently, they needed a lawsuit to force them to actually state their policies in writing.
If you want to help JJPL continue this work, you have two opportunities this weekend.
You can buy Hornets tickets through a special offer listed on JJPL's website, and $5 of every ticket goes to support JJPL. The offer is here.
Or you can come to a car wash fundraiser sponsored by Young Adults Striving for Success (YASS) the youth group organized by JJPL. The fundraiser is this Saturday, from 10am to 2pm, at Hope Academy on 2437 Jena St.
Photo by Abdul Aziz.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Is New Orleans’ housing crisis a human rights violation? United Nations Special Rapporteur on Housing Raquel Rolnik will be in New Orleans this week gathering evidence. Local housing activists and national human rights advocates have arranged a town hall meeting this Friday for New Orleanians to speak up and be heard.
Rolnik’s visit is part of an official mission to the United States from October 22nd - November 8th. This will be the first-ever official country visit to the United States by a Special Rapporteur on Housing. The Special Rapporteur is appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on the housing situation of a given country.
The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty will be coordinating the visit, with significant involvement from grassroots groups around country - including MayDay New Orleans.
The visit will focus on public housing, Section 8, homelessness and the foreclosure crisis. The Rapporteur's office has selected Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, DC, Pine Ridge, South Dakota and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania for site visits. The New Orleans visit will be a follow-up to the recent International Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) fact-finding mission.
NESRI's Human Right to Housing Program Director Tiffany Gardner comments, "Mrs. Rolnik's U.S. visit is profoundly important because it recognizes that Americans do have a human right to housing and that right is so deeply imperiled that it merits international monitoring at the moment."
The meeting is this Friday, October 30th at 6:30 pm at St. Bernard Church, 3938 St. Bernard Ave. For more information, call 504 319 3300.
Monday, October 26, 2009
In 2003, Louisiana psychologist and retired colonel Larry James watched behind a one way mirror in a U.S. prison camp while an interrogator and three prison guards wrestled a screaming near-naked man on the floor. The prisoner had been forced into pink women’s panties, lipstick and a wig; the men then pinned the prisoner to the floor in an effort “to outfit him with the matching pink nightgown.” As he recounts in his memoir, Fixing Hell, Dr. James initially chose not to respond. He “opened [his] thermos, poured a cup of coffee, and watched the episode play out, hoping it would take a better turn and not wanting to interfere without good reason…”
Although he claims to eventually find “good reason” to intervene, the Army colonel never reported the incident or even so much as reprimanded men who had engaged in activities that constituted war crimes.
Sadly, the story of Dr. James’ complicity in prisoner abuse does not end there. The New Orleans native and former LSU psychology professor admits to overseeing the detention, interrogation and health care of three boys, aged twelve to fourteen, who were disappeared to Guantanamo and held without charge or access to counsel or their families. In Fixing Hell and elsewhere, Dr. James proudly proclaims that he was in a position of authority at Guantanamo.
Government records indicate that, as the senior psychologist consulting on interrogations, his decisions affected the policy and operations of interrogations and detention on the base. During his time there, reports of beatings, sexual abuse, religious humiliation and sleep deprivation during interrogations were widespread, and draconian isolation was official policy. Prisoners suffered, and some continue to suffer, devastating physical and psychological harm. Dr. Trudy Bond, a psychologist under an ethical obligation to report abuse by other psychologists, filed a complaint against Dr. James before the Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists in February 2008.
Dr. Bond’s complaint says that Dr. James’ conduct violated Louisiana laws governing his psychology license. As a psychologist and military colonel, he had a duty to avoid harm, to protect confidential information, and to obtain informed consent, as well as to prevent and punish the misconduct of his subordinates. How did the Louisiana licensing board respond? Rather than investigate, the Board dismissed the complaint, and when asked again, reaffirmed its decision. Dr. Bond has now taken the case to the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge.
Dr. James played an influential role in both the policy and day-to-day operations of interrogations and detention in the notorious prison camps built to hold men and boys captured during the U.S. “War on Terror.” According to his own statements, he was a senior member of interrogation consulting teams that, as documented by government records, were central in designing interrogation plans that exploited psychological and physical weaknesses of individual detainees. In one example cited by the New York Times, a military health professional told interrogators that “the detainee’s medical files showed he had a severe phobia of the dark and suggested ways in which that could be manipulated to induce him to cooperate.”
Had Dr. James chosen to cast himself as a brave, but ultimately ineffective voice against torture, he may have fooled some people into believing him. Instead, he’s presented an utterly implausible portrait: one of a man “chosen” by “the nation” to “fix the hell” of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, a feat he claims to have accomplished so successfully that ever since he was first deployed in January 2003, “where ever [sic] we have had psychologists no abuses have been reported.” This is patently untrue. The real “fact of the matter,” as documented by government records, reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross and eyewitness accounts, is that serious abuses were widespread both during Dr. James’ tenure as senior psychologist for the Joint Intelligence Group at Guantánamo, and after he left.
One would imagine that such disregard for a law designed to protect the public welfare would greatly concern the body charged with its enforcement. But the Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, which issued James his license, has refused to investigate whether he violated professional misconduct law.
The Board’s conduct should alarm all Louisiana health professionals and their patients. The Board demeans the profession when it fails to seriously address the possibility that a Louisiana licensee was involved in torture. It also strips the Louisiana psychology license of meaning and value. How can patients rely on a license issued and enforced by a body that arbitrarily refuses to look into allegations of grave misconduct?
As the legal battle wears on, the people of Louisiana need to ask the Board’s members what “good reason” they await in order to act. They should demand that the Board of Examiners conduct a thorough investigation of Larry James and, if what he admits is true, revoke his privilege to practice.
Bill Quigley is a Loyola Law professor working at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Deborah Popowski is a Skirball Fellow at the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program. Both authors are involved with the campaign When Healers Harm: Hold Health Professionals Accountable for Torture. Bill can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Deborah can be contacted at email@example.com.
Louisiana Justice Institute Presents: Guest Writer Joe Blakk reflects on Congressional Black Caucus Convention
The Congressional Black Caucus Convention was an event made up of four days of information and sharing, addressing the state of African Americans in America. This years theme was Reinvest, Rebuild and Renew, where we focused on solutions, as opposed to only talking about our problems. The seminars were mind blowing with the biggest issue being trying to decide on which seminar to attend.
The more seminars you attend, and the more you talk and listen to others, you begin to understand that the struggles in the black community are universal, whether it is gentrification, the cradle to prison pipeline, or gerrymandering. You also begin to realize that the 13th Amendment wasn’t the end of the line for slavery; it was only a stop we had to make to transfer to a bus that made less noise.
This was my third time attending the Congressional Convention and they are always empowering and motivating. It’s not every day you get a chance to be hands on with congressmen and other powerful and influential black people in our country. I wish there were a way we could bring more of the people from our community next year to experience this. I always leave more empowered and energized. It was a mind blowing experience. In the Post-Obama America, nothing will be handed to us. We can no longer wait on the bus; we must be that bus.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
A Vote of No Confidence: The Case for Re-Organization of the New Orleans Ethics Review Board and Office of Inspector General
A “vote of no confidence” signifies that a majority of a constituency does not support a governing body or official. Recently, the citizens of New Orleans have voiced an informal vote of no confidence or disfavor with the City of New Olreans’ Ethics Review Board (ERB), and its governance of the Office of Inspector General (OIG).
This public disfavor is in response to recent news that the ERB has fumbled its fundamental public duty, which is the hiring of a qualified Inspector General for the City of New Orleans. Additionally, there is public concern regarding recent break-ins in OIG offices that were involved in reporting problems within the office and the hiring of unqualified personnel to serve in high-level positions at the ERB and OIG. The management of the OIG and the ERB has created dysfunction that prevents these offices from pursuing their mandates. Furthermore, decisions and other actions taken by the ERB and OIG are shrouded in secrecy, which defeats the principles of transparency and governmental accountability that these offices were established to uphold in the public interest.
Some members of the New Orleans City Council argue that these offices will right themselves on their own. However, in their current posture it is difficult to envision these offices ever regaining the public trust without significant public involvement that ensures reform.
The complete Louisiana Justice Institute report presents the governance structure and mandate of the ERB and OIG, a summary of the currently known controversies involving these offices and their genesis, and recommendations for structural change that can restore public trust in these fledgling offices so that they can perform the work required for effective governmental oversight.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Louisiana Justice Institute Releases Report and Recommendations on Office of Inspector General and Ethics Review Board
The new report released today - A Vote of No Confidence: A Case for Reorganization of the New Orleans Ethics Review Board and Office of Inspector General - presents the governance structure and mandate of the ERB and OIG, a summary of the currently known controversies involving these offices and their genesis, and recommendations for structural change that can restore public trust in these fledgling offices so that they can perform the work required for effective governmental oversight.
The report is available online at: http://www.nolapublicrecords.org/sites/default/files/docs/governance/A%20Vote%20of%20No%20Confidence%2010-20-09%20Final.pdf
"The Ethics Review Board has fumbled its fundamental public duty, which is the hiring of a qualified Inspector General for the City of New Orleans. Additionally, there is public concern regarding the break-ins in OIG offices involved in reporting problems within the office, and the hiring of unqualified personnel to serve in high-level positions at the ERB and OIG," reports LJI Managing Co-Director Tracie L. Washington. The decisions and other actions taken by the ERB and OIG are shrouded in secrecy, which defeats the principles of transparency and governmental accountability that these offices were established to uphold in the public interest. "The management of the OIG and the ERB has created dysfunction, preventing these offices from pursuing their mandates, which New Orleans residents believe are critical," states Washington.
AMONG THE RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE REPORT:
The Louisiana Justice Institute recommends that the New Orleans City Council immediately mandate a suspension of all substantive functions of these offices to conduct a full management audit that examines all the functions, activities, transactions, and governance of these offices. This management audit must begin with an assessment of the governance of the ERB and OIG that determines whether the missions and functions of the ERB and OIG overlap in a way that creates confusion and inefficiency.
Furthemore, the personnel practices of the ERB and OIG must be overhauled. The internal turmoil concerning hiring, termination, and qualifications of candidates - and the troubling issue of potential conflicts of interest in hiring personnel who served in elected offices that are subject to investigations by the OIG - has led to public disdain and the lack of confidence in the ERB and OIG to ethically and effectively fulfill their missions.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Jacques also joined Mayoral candidate James Perry on the Pacifica radio network show Flashpoints, discussing Obama's recent visit and the state of recovery in New Orleans.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Today President Obama and several cabinet secretaries came to New Orleans, as part of Obama’s first visit to the Gulf Coast since he was elected president. While he was met with ecstatic crowds and tickets to his town hall at UNO were the most sought-after item in the city, there were also notes of concern from the grassroots.
The Institute of Southern Studies reported that many Gulf Coast activists they have spoken to expressed concern about the President’s commitment to Gulf Coast recovery. The Institute’s executive director Chris Kromm writes on their blog Facing South, “Rebuilding communities, bringing people home, ensuring access to health care and good schools: these are the basic building blocks of renewal which have, for many, come too slow and too little -- and for the 25% of the city that hasn't returned, hasn't come at all.” Organizations such as All Congregations Together gathered signatures for open letters to the president, attempting to nudge him into action.
The STEPS Coalition, an alliance of grassroots organizations in Mississippi also expressed concerns about Obama’s visit, saying in an open letter, “Recent visits by cabinet members to the Gulf South have not always included Mississippi and when Mississippi was included, community groups have been ignored and/or denied an audience to personally express unmet needs and federal agency gaps.”
Several articles in the Times-Picayune have also expressed wishes that the President would see more on his trip, from environmentalists hoping he will see the vanishing wetlands to housing activists who want the President to see the vacant lots that used to be thousands of units of public housing.
In the end, most advocates agree; it’s not about what Obama saw or didn’t see during his four hour visit to the Gulf – the question is what will he do for Gulf Coast recovery once he’s back in Washington. And without organized pressure from the grassroots, it's unlikely the change we need will come.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Two weeks ago, a federal judge partially granted class certification in a lawsuit seeking to hold the Gretna Police Department and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office accountable for their actions in the aftermath of Katrina. The lawsuit addresses the actions of police on the Crescent City Connection Bridge, when New Orleanians who tried to escape from the flooded city were shot at by police.
Last week, attorneys filed an offshoot case in Orleans Civil District Court, which also names Crescent City Connection Police Chief Michael Helmstetter and the state of Louisiana as defendants. The Times-Picayune reports, “As state entities, they are immune under federal law, but not state law, said attorney Adele Owen of the Schmolke Firm in Baton Rouge, which filed the case with Cleo Fields.”
According to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by Louisiana Justice Institute, “The police officers employed by the Gretna Police Department, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, and the Crescent City Connection Bridge Police acted willfully, deliberately, maliciously, and with reckless disregard for the petitioners’ safety…Further, said policy resulted from an intentional choice, among various alternatives, to follow a course of action which evidences deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights and safety of the petitioners.”
This is no rash action in a crisis. There is an abundance of evidence that Gretna police knew exactly what they were doing – and still feel no remorse about it, even to this day. Those that participated in this terrible action felt no empathy for the people of New Orleans.
As the LA Times reported way back in September of 2005, “Little over a week after this mostly white suburb became a symbol of callousness for using armed officers to seal one of the last escape routes from New Orleans — trapping thousands of mostly black evacuees in the flooded city — the Gretna City Council passed a resolution supporting the police chief's move. 'This wasn't just one man's decision," Mayor Ronnie C. Harris said Thursday. "The whole community backs it.'"
If a whole community is responsible for a crime, how do you rebuild justice? We hope these lawsuits are a step in the direction of accountability.
Monday, October 5, 2009
In today's Washington Post, Governor Jindal declared the debate on health care "over," and also made the unusual claim that the so-called public option, which enjoys the support of a majority of the people in this country, is "passe." The alternative health care "reforms" he offers range from the completely off-topic (tort reform) to small changes that can best be compared to treating a gunshot wound with a band aid (electronic medical records).
Senator David Vitter, when not calling attention to his own vices by attacking ACORN for support of prostitution, is also holding up environmental reform. He has put a hold on the nomination of Dr. Paul Anastas for the position of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development, apparently as part of an effort to block the EPA from issuing a draft environmental standard regarding formaldehyde. Dr. Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (pictured above) has written a letter to Senator Vitter, saying, "While companies dedicated to defending the status quo of emitting toxic pollution and manufacturing harmful products may be pleased with your decision, we are not."
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Recent news reports have highlighted Attorney General Eric Holder’s stated intention to rebuild the department’s civil rights division. According to the Washington Post, the division, “Filed only one discrimination case on behalf of a black voter from 2001 to 2006 and, through a series of hires, systematically placed lawyers ideologically aligned with the Bush administration - some with little to no civil rights experience - in permanent civil rights jobs. More than half of the division's career lawyers left in the past eight years, some taking decades of expertise with them.”
As the New York Times declared in a recent editorial, “The Bush administration declared war on the whole idea of civil rights, in a way that no administration of either party had since the passage of the nation’s civil rights laws in the 1960s.”
Attorney General Holder’s changes in the department are already being felt locally. Last weekend, federal agents closed down New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge for several hours, apparently for the purpose of evidence collection and crime-scene reconstruction. This is another sign that the federal government appears to be serious about investigating the criminal actions of the New Orleans police department.
As we wrote in this blog a few weeks ago, investigators are apparently looking into the police killings on the Danziger Bridge in the days after Katrina, as well as the Adolph Grimes shooting, police and vigilante killings in Algiers, and more.
Here in New Orleans, there is much more to investigate, at every level of our criminal justice system.
The news of the investigation on the bridge came just after the release of a Department of Justice investigation, which found that conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) violate the constitutional rights of prisoners.
According to the investigation, “prisoners at OPP are not adequately protected from harm, including physical harm from excessive use of force by staff and prisoner-on-prisoner violence. Prisoners at the jail also receive inadequate mental health care, including proper suicide prevention, and there are serious deficiencies in the ways the medications of prisoners are managed.”
Last week also saw the release of a survey by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which found that New Orleans magistrate judges regularly violate rights, including failing to properly determine probable cause in 83 percent of first appearances.
“An arrestee’s first appearance is where the magistrate judge, among other tasks, sets bail, appoints counsel, determines whether or not a warrantless arrest was made with probable cause and allows individuals to exercise their fundamental rights,” said CCR Legal Director Bill Quigley. “Instead, we found the courts rushed through first appearances, on average spending less than two minutes per case – this is a troubling indication of system-wide failure to uphold the U.S. Constitution.”
It’s clear we have systemic problems, and we need systemic solutions. Having a real civil rights division in the Justice Department for the first time in nearly a decade is a good first step. But we also need pressure at the grassroots, fighting to hold both local officials and the federal government accountable.