New Orleans Inspector Struggles to Get Started
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's spend a few minutes inspecting the office of New Orleans' first inspector general. He's been on the job for nearly six months, but the office is not up and running. Bob Cerasoli made a name for himself uncovering problems with Boston's Big Dig construction project. But now, he might have met his toughest challenge - New Orleans bureaucracy. Today, the man charged with auditing city finances and uncovering local corruption hopes to finally get approval to hire a staff.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN: When I met Bob Cerasoli five months ago, just days into his new job as New Orleans' inspector general, he didn't have an office, was using his personal cell phone for business calls, and was struggling to get around town after refusing a free car from the city. I, like other reporters, would end up giving him a ride once the interview was over.
Mr. ROBERT CERASOLI (Inspector General, New Orleans, Louisiana): After you left and I didn't have rides anymore, I spent three and a half months taking the bus. And I've actually get in buses when they've broken down and had to get out and walk. I mean, I've been through it all. And I realize what the people here go through. And I think that's one of the things we're going to take a look at.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KAHN: Cerasoli, a Massachusetts native if you couldn't tell, has a laundry list of things he wants to start investigating. New Orleans astronomical crime rate, how local trash contracts are awarded, and why so many employees use city cars with free gas.
Mr. CERASOLI: I'm willing to bet that there could be as much as $12 million spent on cars and gas.
Ms. CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL (Councilwoman, New Orleans, Louisiana): I think his department is going to save this city a lot of money.
KAHN: Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell heads the city's budget committee, which approved the inspector general's $3.4 million budget and the lease on his new downtown office. But opposition has surfaced in recent weeks as Cerasoli, who makes as much as the mayor of New Orleans has tried to get final approval to hire 25 inspectors, auditors and engineers. Some of Cerasoli's engineers will start at pay grades above comparable city employees.
Morrell says she's confident the snags can be worked out. She says it's critical that the I.G. be up and running this year, just as hundreds of millions of federal Katrina relief dollars are finally making their way into New Orleans.
Ms. MORRELL: Having him here is going to do so much for the morale of this city. Having someone who is going to go in and make sure that we are running every department as efficiently as - you know, he is really not eager to be, you know, on a witch hunt.
KAHN: Overseeing Cerasoli is the newly created Ethics Review Board headed by Loyola University's President Reverend Kevin Wildes.
Reverend KEVIN WILDES (Chairman, Ethics Review Board, New Orleans; President, Loyola University): I'd like to call our meeting to order. And the first item of business is approval of…
KAHN: At this month's meeting, Wildes told members that he realized that it's been a tough fight to finally get New Orleans the oversight it's been lacking, but progress has been made.
Rev. WILDES: We have a budget. We have space. So things are moving. And so I just - we have much to do, but it's good to remember that we have done a lot already.
KAHN: There certainly is much to do. New Orleans' 2006 audit was just published this week. And among the many jaw-dropping findings was the city's failure to remit federal payroll taxes for the last four months of that year.
Cerasoli says he's already received anonymous calls from citizens and plenty of tips from city employees.
Mr. CERASOLI: You know, what we really want to do here, as the inspector general, is we want to change systems. We want to change the way the government does business. We want to make it more efficient, more effective, more productive.
KAHN: Cerasoli says he hopes today's vote goes his way, and that he can start hiring staff as soon as possible because he anticipates being very busy.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, New Orleans.
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