Thursday, August 07, 2008

NOAH's lark lands on mountain o' cash

The Times-Picayune has a couple of tales of your tax money "at work" in New Orleans.


Doris Grandpre knows exactly who gutted her 7th Ward house last year, then helped her start rebuilding the single shotgun where she lived for three decades before Hurricane Katrina.

"There was David. You got Christopher. Then there was Jason. Oh, and Simon," Grandpre, 76, said this week, recalling the student volunteers who came from Boston and Seattle to tear out her plaster walls and save the few precious items the flood did not destroy.

"I call them my little angels," she said.

It appears, however, that another crew has taken credit for demolition work at Grandpre's house. City records show that Hall & Hall Enterprises, the highest-paid contractor in Mayor Ray Nagin's home remediation program, billed the city $7,830 for gutting and boarding up the house and cutting the grass at the St. Anthony Street property.

The house is one of at least seven addresses that appear on two lists detailing post-storm remediation. One list belongs to the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana's Office of Disaster Response, which organized volunteers from across the country to come to New Orleans and provide free home remediation services, such as gutting and boarding up homes, to residents in need of help.

Those same addresses appear on a list produced by the nonprofit New Orleans Affordable Homeownership Corp., which oversaw a remediation program that contractors billed a total of $1.8 million.

The homeownership corporation, also known as NOAH, billed taxpayers more than $25,000 for work at those addresses.

Grandpre, a retired nursing aide at Charity Hospital, said Wednesday that she has no idea how her address got on NOAH's gutting list. Since January 2007, she has lived in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in her side yard, and no city contractor has ever stopped by.

"A group of kids took the stuff out," she said. "The only people who helped me was people from outside the city."

The duplicate entries on the NOAH and church lists raise more questions about the management of a short-lived city program designed to help elderly and poor residents along the road to recovery. A city official said last week that, to his knowledge, NOAH had paid out all of the $1.8 million to its subcontractors.

In light of the scrutiny, NOAH's board of directors suspended the organization's business last week and served notice Wednesday that its remaining four employees will be terminated Friday as of 5 p.m. Officials declined to name the employees or disclose their salaries. NOAH's former executive director, Stacey Jackson, resigned in June.

Also on Wednesday, the NOAH board asked the New Orleans Finance Authority to put into escrow federal funds that were to have been funneled to NOAH for use as soft-second mortgages for low-income homeowners.


The shutdown of the agency comes as the FBI and the inspector general of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which authorized grants that financed the gutting program, have launched their own investigations. The city official who oversaw the program has acknowledged that City Hall improperly used the federal money and may have to pay back more than $223,000.

Meanwhile, Jackson, the former executive director, has been linked through business and personal connections to several contractors who worked for the program, including Richard Hall, whose firm billed for $345,000 worth of work, including gutting and boarding up Grandpre's house.

Another house, on Forshey Street near the Monticello Canal, fits the same pattern. Records provided by the Episcopal Diocese program show that volunteers from Texas arrived in October 2006 and tore drywall, tile and floorboards out of the house, which took on 7 feet of water in Katrina. The volunteers even managed to save a few heirlooms.

Ann Brown, whose brother owns the property, said she remembers the volunteers.

"I talked with someone from the church group who was there," said Brown, who lives a block away and keeps an eye on the lot. "I met them. I talked to them personally."

However, three separate NOAH contractors, including a firm owned by Nagin's brother-in-law, have billed City Hall a combined $5,115 to gut, board up and cut grass at the Forshey Street house.

Myers & Sons claimed it had done $4,415 worth of work at the lot, while Iron Triangle and Smith & Associates Consulting have billed $350 apiece. Smith & Associates is owned by Cedric Smith, whose sister is Nagin's wife, Seletha.
Contractors working for New Orleans Affordable Homeownership billed taxpayers at least $123,000 to gut 30 homes that records show were torn down shortly thereafter -- also at public expense -- raising further questions about a troubled city agency charged with a leading role in flood recovery.

Interviews with neighbors suggest that some of that gutting work was in fact never performed.

Whether or not taxpayers were defrauded -- a question that has drawn the attention of federal investigators -- the fact that city-financed gutting crews were followed in short order by city-financed backhoe operators suggests, at best, a City Hall management debacle.

James Ross, a spokesman for Mayor Ray Nagin, said the city is required to pursue demolition of houses deemed to be health threats or in danger of collapse, regardless of whether they have been gutted. He also said that some homeowners may have reconsidered an initial decision to repair a home and sought its demolition instead.

All together, NOAH paid contractors about $1.7 million to gut about 460 properties, according to City Hall records. About 400 other properties received less costly services, mainly grass-cutting and boarding.

Slightly more than 10 percent of the homes the agency assigned to remediation contractors have since been demolished. The federal government financed about half of those demolitions; private individuals paid for the others.

Matt McBride, a blogger and activist who has maintained a database of all properties granted demolition permits since Hurricane Katrina, cross-referenced that list with a remediation list provided by NOAH. He found substantial crossover.

The Times-Picayune spot-checked 11 of the properties that the city spent the most money fixing, ranging from a property on Catina Street in Lakeview at a cost of $8,257 to a property on North Galvez Street in the Lower 9th Ward costing $4,070.

Ten of the 11 had been demolished. The city has issued a demolition permit for the only house still standing: the North Galvez property, one of only a couple of structures on a mostly abandoned block. The city issued the permit to one of the contractors hired to tear down blighted properties at taxpayer expense.

The house has been gutted, but it is unboarded and open to the elements. City records show the work on that house was done by Hall & Hall Enterprises, the highest-paid contractor in NOAH's remediation program.

Richard Hall Jr., who owns that firm, is a former business partner of NOAH's embattled former director, Stacey Jackson. He did not return a phone call Tuesday.
HERE WE HAVE two tales of a city. Do not expect any happy endings.

Here is what you can expect:

* The U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans -- the three federal prosecutors in Louisiana being the state's only effective defense against public corruption -- will get an indictment against Stacey Jackson, the former NOAH head. Perhaps other indictments will be forthcoming as well.

* Being that the trial has to be held somewhere in Louisiana, God only knows whether any convictions will be forthcoming.

* Federal relief money intended to help New Orleans and Louisiana recover from Hurricane Katrina will continue to be wasted, misallocated and blatantly stolen for as long as it continues to roll in.

* The people who need help the most will continue to get the least.

* New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin will continue to run reporters around in circles. When that stops working, he will denounce any reporter who's uncovered yet more graft, incompetence or outright stupidity as "hurting the recovery."

AS THEY SAY back home, "Dat's Looziana for you!"

And as they say everywhere else, "This just might be the time Louisiana cuts its own throat, but good."

Truly -- with the exception of harboring Islamist guerrillas who carry out attacks against the national government -- the Gret Stet reminds one of no less than Russia's troublesome Chechen Republic, an economically devastated region of the dysfunctional and the disadvantaged . . . and of grafters, mobsters and kidnappers. With every outbreak of shenanigans across its post-Katrina landscape, Louisiana further cements its status as America's Chechnya.

And in New Orleans, "an economically devastated region of the dysfunctional and the disadvantaged . . . and of grafters, mobsters and kidnappers" describes Central City on a particularly good day.

FOR THREE YEARS NOW, in the wake of Katrina and the federal flood, Louisiana pols and New Orleans "leaders" have trekked to Washington, D.C., with their hands outstretched. Billions upon billions of taxpayers' dollars, after much wrangling, have been put into those outstretched hands.

And now the outstretched hands full of taxpayers' dollars have been slipped, it would appear, into the pockets of politicians and their cronies -- just as the most cynical and parsimonious in the nation's capital said would happen.

Barring the resumption, after 140 years, of Reconstruction and military occupation (which, really, Louisianians ought to be on their knees praying for . . . that being their last, best hope) there is only one surefire way to stop Louisiana in its thieving tracks.

Only one remaining way to stop crooked pols, their crooked agencies and crooked contractors from collecting federal dollars for work volunteer church kids did. Only one last chance to stop fools in public office from taking federal money to "remediate" flooded homes . . . right before more federal money goes toward bulldozing those same "remediated" homes.

Cut off the cash. Now. Every penny.

There's an old saying I heard over and over growing up in Louisiana -- "Root, hog, or die." Maybe it's time my home state (and the crooks who run it, and the enablers who populate it) find out exactly what that means.

HAT TIP: Your Right Hand Thief.

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