Mardi Gras

Newell: "No show" inspections pop up at multiple construction sites

Four Seasons hotel, Odeon Tower got same inspection treatment as Hard Rock

Newell Normand
February 26, 2020 - 3:47 pm
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WWL-TV Investigative Reporter David Hammer didn’t get to enjoy as much of what Mardi Gras has to offer as he might have liked due in large part to the constant drip of new revelations in his probing work of the Hard Rock Hotel collapse and the city’s Department of Safety and Permits. Newell invited Hammer into the studio Wednesday morning to recap what he’s learned so far and what he is working on next. 

“Let’s take a step back and look at where we are right now,” Newell began. “This is a really compelling story and we just don’t know where the ramifications are going to lead us. How do we know for sure that all these structures are safe?”

“The collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel laid bare something that is a major systemic problem in the city of New Orleans that goes back years and years,” Hammer said. “We have inspectors getting their palms greased, as you’d say, and that's been proven with the conviction of a former City Inspector dating back to 2015 taking $65,000 in bribes in exchange for doing no-show inspections. After the Hard Rock collapse, I was able to get public records showing the GPS locations of the trucks the inspectors use to look at projects all around town, including the Hard Rock, and it showed that in eight inspections we looked at, they only went to the Hard Rock with their trucks three times. On Monday, I broke the story of two additional major projects downtown - the World Trade Center/Four Season hotel renovation, which had appears to have had four no-show inspections, and the Odeon Tower in the South Market District got its second-floor parking garage slab approved when the data showed that the same inspector from the Hard Rock, Julie Tweeter, was a no-show at the Odeon as well.”

“Is Tweeter the inspector that’s not qualified to do commercial inspections, or was that the other one?” Newell asked.

“She is qualified at this time, but I found that she did not have commercial building inspection qualifications until August 2018, and by that time she had already done four inspections at the Hard Rock,” Hammer answered.

“The audiotape you uncovered of a Safety and Permits meeting they had in the immediate aftermath of learning that there was a Federal investigation looking into their department was compelling,” Newell continued. “To me, it speaks volumes about the culture of this organization.”

“The recording is from September 16, 2019, three days after the news broke that there was this Federal investigation,” Hammer replied. “The meeting starts off with Harry Chan, the building official at the time, saying ‘oh, we’re famous, we’re on Channel 4 because they’re talking about us having this emergency meeting!’ That was followed immediately by a conversation about how they must not talk to the media. That covering-your-tracks attitude was on full display. The other thing they talked about was ‘hey, we’ve got to do our jobs!’”

“I can't help it - the lawyer in me really comes out when I see all this that you’ve revealed,” Newell said. “It brings to the forefront the following considerations - the city is guilty of failure to supervise and negligent retention. These are the two theories of liability just jumping off the pages to me when you reveal that tape, the follow up with the GPS - nobody is following up on these employees and they know it. They had knowledge that this was a problem. This just smacks of liability on the city’s part.”

“That’s gonna be the question,” Hammer agreed. “One of the big debates is - how much impact could these inspectors have had if they had shown up and done these inspections. What were they looking for? Did they have the training to notice something wasn’t right?”

Last week Newell said the Department of Safety and Permits is unsalvageable and that it ought to be completely dismantled, a position he reiterated today.

“The culture there is so bad,” Newell concluded. “When a manager is imploring them to do their job and use the tools that keep their work efficient, and there’s no sanction for not doing it… it’s like a bunch of free agents running around doing whatever they want. This is serious business! The only way to defeat that culture is to eliminate that department and start over!”

Hear the entire interview in the audio player below.



 

 

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