August 7, 2008

Oh NOAH! Look at Who They Let in the Backdoor

After sending his possible regrets due to a scheduling conflict, the Mayor appeared at the Council today to talk NOAH. He was in fine form.

When I arrived, the normal stuff was playing out: talk of better preparation for voting locations, particularly for handicapped citizens; an apology to the gathered firemen--decision on their pay was delayed because the corresponding report still had errors; fine use of mixed metaphors and figures of speech by the Council ("behind the 8 ball," "puppy to rest," "apples to oranges (2x)"); the treatment of Midura as a spacey little kid; the brusque cross of city pol/grandmamma from Clarkson, who once again referred to her many years on the Council and her old friends; the walls lined with fantasy images of new developments like the Ellis Marsalis Music Center and the Tracage; and that clock with no hands on it.

Then the cameras shuffle, the rules were suspended, and you knew that Nagin was coming after all (really, isn't that how he's always heralded?). Clarkson called for a 5 minute recess, then tried to ask the firemen to sit back down. It seemed Willard-Lewis had a resolution for them and was ready to fire away now that the tripods were settled. She shouted about a new station in New Orleans East, Blakely's assumed wisdom, and the need for a Marine.

And as she did this, Nagin appeared from backstage. He ignored all the members save Carter, who he clutched hands with, and then fiddled a bit with his Blackberry. When she was finished, Willard-Lewis also recieved a touch. Clarkson asked if the mayor was ready and you could hear him answer as he descended to the council floor, "Always."

Nagin sat down at the table alone. He began with the wish for some "non-sensational" dialogue. Amateur investigations had clouded judgement of the NOAH situation from day 1. Of course if his administration had known something, they would've done something earlier. Among those to blame for the inaccuracies are college students and the news. Now that he was on the case, things have been "kicked into high gear."

He repeatedly mentioned 90 properties (out of how many?) that were under investigation. Of these, 46 invoices had been paid for work that might not have been done. His office would request documentation and possible reimbursement from subcontractors, but first they need to match up the NOAH records and find out who'd been paid and for what. Because, I guess, they don't usually do these kind of things, like finding out if they get what they pay for). At this point, Nagin is not comfortable about any NOAH work. He won't tolerate any "insider" deals. He is really concerned.

But what also concerns him is the way this has been handled. He respects the Council's schedule; why not they his? He doesn't appreciate them not acting like a team. He is, yet again, "sick and tired."

(There's also a strange thing with Nagin where you can't tell if he's saying "portrayed" or "betrayed," which I think is telling. See, Nagin became this Nagin in the cameras of the storm. He was sucked into the unreality of the screen and light, saw himself shouting, saw what it got him, and became obsessed with the camera. This has turned on him, to the point that he truly believes that the camera has betrayed him, that the media is crushing the recovery, and that he must do battle with it for the soul of the city...on camera, of course. In fact, I don't think he just uses the paranoia for defense--I think he really does believe this. The camera ate Nagin.)

And he's sick and tired of the whole sum--the Pam Jones thing (?), the 311 thing. Don't you know, when they got down to it, 97% of 311 calls go thru?!! So I put my cell on speakerphone and called 311 three times. And 100% of the time, I recieved the message "Your call can't be completed as dialed." No one seemed to hear that, and no one disputed Nagin's account.

Nagin listed false reports (which I'd never heard) about Bill Jefferson or Chief Reilly owning NOAH houses. A warped tactic, but I guess he had some truth. At his most plaintive, Nagin doesn't understand why the Councilmembers act like this. "Well, with a couple, I do." Then he paused...

So if the IG, the FBI, HUD, or the US Attorney wants to investigate, fine by him. But not the press.

First up is Fielkow, Nagin's potential successor. Fielkow believes that, for people to stay in New Orleans, to invest and reinvest, to do business here, there must be a confidence in leadership. The NOAH situation has eroded that confidence, particularly the delay of 2 weeks in the mayor taking action. "Your reaction was defensive," Fielkow tells Nagin, tells him he should have looked into it immediately.

Nagin: I said that. Check the tapes.
Fielkow: OK, we will.
Me: RN--Ray Nagin, Richard Nixon.

Doesn't it make more sense, Fielkow asks, to have an independent investigation? Shouldn't the City put all the info out there for the IG, the FBI, and HUD to look at and decide what happened? Fielkow makes the main point: After all we've gone through, the City's internal investigation won't be credible. We want the same thing.

"I'm not convinced of that," Nagin growls.

The mayor then goes on to make clear that as we speak, the City is taking NOAH's list of houses and comparing them to the invoices recieved from subcontractors to find out what was paid for. They are the City, and they are responsible to HUD and the citizenry.

Isn't their a taint, Fielkow asks? Isn't the best thing to do in business, when a problem arises, with conflict of interest accusations, to separate the business from the investigation? There are independent monitors like Cerasoli (interestingly, all of the council members who speak bring up the IG's name, which must make Nagin grit his teeth).

Nagin says they have an independent investigator inside the Administration who is familiar with the process. He doesn't seem to see the contradiction there.

Fielkow is done. Hedge-Morrell has nothing to say. Really, nothing? The budget chair? Huh.

Midura is up. She thanks everyone. On the big screen, you can see the "James Carter For Congress" sticker on her lapel. She tells Nagin that the Council represents the public, which is disgusted and is pressuring the council re: the City's slow response.

Nagin: I don't know where they get that from.

Midura asks how "immediately" is defined by Nagin, when they've had repeated hearings and inaccuracies in this debacle. Apparently, Head sent an email requesting stop payments to NOAH in April. Nagin says he has no documenation of that.

In her usual stuttering, almost elfish way, Midura asks a key question: re: Nagin's contention that his office is matching up the lists of what was paid and what was done: why wasn't it happening all the time? Aren't lists kept?

(It always strikes me as a shame that Midura is so bad in person, because she often gets it. Her persona allows the good sense to be either patted or swatted on the head by lesser minds with bigger mouths.)

Nagin says NOAH had clean audits up until this. He continues to say that they'll hunt down any possible "insider things," I guess meaning NOAH and subcontractors and the swindling of money and property. What he doesn't seem to get is that LISTS are the issue. More than possible corruption, the fact that the City can't simply check this out within a day or two is the problem. There is a sea of bullshit and broken half-systems under everything.

Mention of Anthony Jones and his bad lists! Kenya mentioned!

Midura asks several questions about the city notifying HUD of an investigation. Not sure why, but she must think something was wrong. In closing, she asks for more "teamsmanship." "I'm doing what I'm supposed to do," she says, as if she should be defending herself.

Carter is next. He asks what the reconciliation process is, how regularly NOAH and the City have done that. Nagin says they verify a charge and invoice, then will have someone go physically check the building. It's "Full Blown Review" now. Carter asks if the people doing the investigation are possible subjects of that investigation. Nagin says he doesn't know, doubts it. HE SHOULD KNOW!

Most of the firemen stayed for the entire thing, I notice. Pretty cool.

In closing, Nagin says that many elderly people are confused about who gutted their houses, since subcontractors hired by the city don't wear badges. Apparently, these old fools can't tell the difference between out-of-town college kids and professional demolition men.

Clarkson does some tying up of things about working together for the good of the citizens. Nagin agrees. She asks that subcontrators not be allowed to self-audit, and that the legislative branch be given more oversight of these audits. Nagin agrees, but you have to think that's the last thing he wants, and has stated as much in earlier discussions. Clarkson metions Cerasoli looking into things, and Nagin says "Beautiful."

Then, with more pleas for working together, the surly, glazed, puffy eyed Mayor gets up and leaves silently. At this point, one public speaker is called: Sandra Hester.

"Real nice of you to call up the public speaker after the mayor leaves."