Government & Politics
 

Inspector General’s Office, two city officials under Ethics Board investigation

The Office of Inspector General and two top New Orleans officials are under an Ethics Review Board investigation after a city employee alleged they conspired to discredit and ultimately fire her. Parking Administrator Zepporiah Edmonds said the officials retaliated against her for complaining about what she saw as a contract-steering scheme in her department in 2012.

Facing termination, Edmonds has requested whistleblower status from the Civil Service Commission and has filed complaints with the state Board of Ethics and the city’s Ethics Review Board. The Lens has confirmed that the city board is investigating.

Zepporiah Edmonds

Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Zepporiah Edmonds

According to Edmonds’ complaints, the campaign against her resulted from complaints she filed with her boss, Department of Public Works Director Mark Jernigan, as well as the Inspector General and Cedric Grant, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s infrastructure czar. She raised concerns  about what she believed was an attempt to steer a multimillion-dollar parking contract to a preferred bidder in 2012. It culminated in a July 2015 report from the Office of Inspector General that focused on two city parking-control officers. The report singled out Edmonds for failing to assist in the investigation, a claim she denies.

Furthermore, Edmonds says the investigator who wrote the report started the probe for personal reasons. Others picked up on it to further their efforts, she contends.

In her letter to the state and city ethics boards, Edmonds wrote that she believes Jernigan and the OIG investigator, Eduardo Hernandez “collaborated together to ensure a certain outcome of the Inspector General’s Investigative Report in order to accomplish their personal missions.”

The documents provided to The Lens by Edmonds and the Civil Service Department show no evidence of collusion between the two offices, but Edmonds offered potential motives for it. In Hernandez’s case, Edmonds said his girlfriend was ticketed several times by one of the parking-control officers named in the OIG’s report.

Jernigan simply wanted to justify terminating a whistleblower in his department, she wrote. Grant supervised Jernigan and appeared to support Jernigan’s actions, she said.

Hernandez did not respond to requests for comment. In an email, Office of Inspector General General Counsel Suzanne Wisdom declined comment.

A Landrieu spokesman offered only a vague response.

“The City is aware of the Ethics Review Board’s investigation and will fully cooperate as needed,” Hayne Rainey wrote in an email responding to a list questions sent to the Mayor’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office, Grant and Jernigan. Rainey declined to comment further.

Dane Ciolino, attorney for the Ethics Review Board, declined to comment on the investigation.

An unusual report from IG’s office

In July, the Office of Inspector General released a report that found parking-control officers were spending their days sitting in downtown coffee shops and hotel lobbies. When one business complained, the report found, the officers retaliated “by issuing large quantities of citations to their employees and customers.”

Far from typical Inspector General reports, which generally look for widespread waste or abuse, the parking report — quite slim at seven pages — named just two officers engaged in the misconduct. The report confirmed only three instances where the officers were sitting in coffee shops for long periods of time, with corroborating evidence offered in the form of a statement from a single coffee shop employee. Few details were provided on the alleged retaliation.

Much of it focused not on the actual abuses, but rather on Edmonds, the head of the city’s Parking Division, who, it said, did not cooperate with the investigator. According to the report, Edmonds — who received a letter of commendation from the Office of Inspector General in 2013 — took months to answer questions and provide requested documents. It also claimed that Edmonds did not provide any information about the alleged retaliation, including that one parking-control officer had been issued a reprimand in 2013.

In an interview, an attorney for Edmonds, Willie Zanders, questioned why part of the report focused solely on Edmonds, not even mentioning Jernigan, her boss.

“The buck stops with him. It’s his department,” Zanders said.

Within weeks of the OIG report, Edmonds was informed that she may be terminated, with the report cited as one of the main reasons.

But emails Edmonds submitted to the Civil Service Department as part of her whistleblower appeal appear to show that she did attempt to cooperate with the investigator after he contacted her in August 2014. She informed Jernigan of the ongoing investigation, but he did not offer any guidance on how to support Hernandez’s work. Nor did he tell Edmonds — who was busy overseeing the transition to a new parking ticket contractor and frequently on medical leave due to a health problem — to make the investigation a priority, she said. In her complaints, Edmonds said that Hernandez did not ask about retaliation against downtown businesses. She offered up the information unprompted in May.

The report, Edmonds now believes, was itself an act of retaliation.

After she saw a preliminary version of the Office of Inspector General’s report, she prepared a detailed response and delivered it to Jernigan personally. Jernigan did not want her to send an email, she later wrote in her ethics complaint.

“It would be tracked. The emails would have gone to the city’s network. It could be part of a public-records request,” Edmonds said in an interview, surmising why Jernigan asked for it to be  hand delivered.

The response, however, did not appear in the Office of Inspector General’s report. In her complaint, Edmonds accused Jernigan of suppressing it.

A mulitmillion-dollar contract at stake

According to her complaints and her whistleblower appeal, the beginning of the end of Edmonds’ 30-year-plus career with the city came in 2012, when the city was seeking a new contractor to manage parking meters and fine collections.

The contract was worth millions of dollars per year. The city assigned several employees with the city’s IT department to act as a technical review committee, advising the committee that would select the winning bidder.

Edmonds said three of them — then-Chief Information Officer Allen Square, his deputy Edward Kerkow, and Service and Innovation Manager Michael McKenna — sought to manipulate the city’s procurement process to steer the business to one of three short-listed bidders, Duncan Solutions. Also in the running were the city’s old contractor Xerox, formerly ACS State and Local Solutions, and SP Plus, formerly Standard Parking.

Ultimately, the bidding process was split in two and restarted. Meter operations went to SP Plus. Duncan Solutions won ticket processing.

“They were basically dictating and directing the selection committee,” she said when asked what made her suspect they wanted to give the business to the company. “They were trying to manipulate their [Duncan’s] pricing, and I do have evidence from spreadsheets and all, to make it seem as if they were the lowest bidders.”

Another city employee assigned to the technical review committee wrote that Kerkow and McKenna were close to the bidders.

“Mr. Kerkow and Mr. McKenna from all indications have close business/personal ties to one or more of the parties that have submitted proposals to the city,” Jorge Hernandez, another member of the technical review committee, wrote in a 2012 memo addressed to Jernigan. He also objected to the “re-writing and editing” of the bid specifications by Square, Kerkow and McKenna.

“I didn’t have a preferred bidder,” McKenna said in a phone interview. “I wasn’t on the selection committee, so I don’t know how I could have steered it.”

McKenna, who no longer works for the city, said he didn’t see any evidence that Kerkow or Square was trying to give the work to a particular bidder.

Neither Square nor Kerkow are still employed by the city, and they did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Lens could not identify any connections McKenna or Square had with the bidders. Kerkow has connections to two. He’s a former employee of ACS. And while there, he worked with a number of people who would later join Duncan and become part of its bid team.

In a July 2012 memo addressed to Jernigan, Edmonds alleged violations of the city’s procurement policies in the selection process. Kerkow and Square, she wrote, were too involved in the process, even though they were not part of the selection committee. At one meeting on June 18, 2012, a motion to rank the bidders was tabled after Kerkow objected, according to Edmonds’ memo.

The city provided hundreds of pages of documents related to the contract selection, including minutes from that meeting. Kerkow’s objection does not appear in the brief document, but a sign in sheet shows that Kerkow was there.

The next day, Square and Kerkow met with Edmonds, Jorge Hernandez, Jernigan and Chief Procurement Officer Mary Kay Kleinpeter-Zamora to discuss pricing proposals, according to minutes taken by Hernandez and Edmonds included in her appeal records.

The minutes from that meeting and another with the same group in July appear to back up Edmonds’ allegation that Square and Kerkow favored Duncan Solutions. At one point, after hearing that Duncan Solutions “had negative responses as to the performance of some of their equipment” in reference checks from other cities, Square apparently questioned the legality of performing the checks.

In the July meeting, Kerkow and Square also encouraged the committee to request “best and final offers” after bids were already submitted, Edmonds’ memo says. That, she wrote, appeared to be a violation of Landrieu’s executive order on procurement, which says price negotiation should only take place after a bidder has been selected.

“In my long tenure as a DPW employee and with all my previous experience as Parking Administrator, I have never found one instance where a vendor, once submitted pricing, has been allowed to go back and resubmit a different amount,” Edmonds wrote.

Edmonds told The Lens the proposal for resubmission was floated specifically in order to give Duncan Solutions a chance to lower its price. Jorge Hernandez and Edmonds had earlier produced an analysis showing that Duncan’s proposal was by far the most expensive of the three, about $900,000 above the lowest bidder SP Plus. A pricing analysis, later included in a letter from ACS/Xerox protesting the selection process, shows that city officials estimated Duncan’s annual price at nearly $5.7 million, compared to $4.8 million for SP Plus and $5 million for ACS/Xerox.

“They insisted on all three short-listed vendors submitting best and final offers in order to give Duncan another opportunity to be the lowest bidders,” Edmonds said in an interview.

Edmonds objected to the “best and final offer,” according to meeting notes attributed to Jorge Hernandez. However, Mary Kay Kleinpeter-Zamora, the city’s chief procurement officer, and Mike Sherman, then a top Landrieu aide, said they did not think it violated the mayor’s order.

According to Edmonds’ ethics complaint, she and Jorge Hernandez had met with investigators from the Office of Inspector General to discuss their concerns. The Inspector General’s interest in the selection process was noted in Jorge Hernandez’s July meeting notes.

“You [Edmonds] mentioned that the OIG was concerned about the length of the selection process. Mr. Square said that that had nothing to do with it but that the OIG became involved when ‘someone complained to them,’ ” Jorge Hernandez wrote in the minutes.

The Lens was not able to compare Edmonds’ and Hernandez’s accounts against the city’s records. The June and July meetings, along with other technical review committee work, weren’t open to the public and minutes from those meetings do not appear in the documents the city provided.

Edmonds also complained to officials in City Hall. In repeated memos and emails, Edmonds complained to Jernigan and Grant, to no avail, she said. In fact, she wrote, she was shut down. A printout of one of Edmonds’ emails with Grant’s letterhead shows a handwritten note, which Edmonds attributes to Grant, reading, “I need to see her today.”

A meeting with Grant was “short and to the point,” Edmonds later wrote in a letter to Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

“I was read the ‘riot act’ for my open objections to the unethical process to select a vendor for the Curb Management Contract AND it was strongly recommended that I ‘stop sending emails about this issue,’ ” she wrote.

Edmonds’ contention that Duncan Solutions had an edge isn’t borne out in records provided by the city. The company was not initially offered the job. SP Plus, the lowest bidder, was offered contracts for meter operations and ticket processing in October 2012. This in spite of the fact that both ACS/Xerox and Duncan Solutions, in protest letters following SP Plus’ selection, identified a number of problems and omissions in its bid.

One bidder says Edmonds had a favorite

In an email to The Lens, Carl Langsenkamp, a spokesman for Xerox Corporation, said the company “had issues with the entire procurement process.”

Like Edmonds, Xerox had concerns about Square and Kerkow, including that Kerkow allegedly did not properly disclose his former employment at the company to the selection committee.

But Xerox also objected to Edmonds’ involvement, noting that she gave SP Plus’ bid — which it said was incomplete — a perfect evaluation.

Asked about the complaint, Edmonds said she thought SP Plus was the best candidate.

“In my opinion as a subject matter expert, they met the requirement,” she said. “In addition, they had the best references. … They rated higher, and that was based upon my knowledge and my expertise in this field.”

Ultimately, however, Duncan Solutions did get a part of the city’s parking business. After the protests from the losing bidders and on the advice of then-City Attorney Sharonda Williams, the city in August 2013 cancelled the meter and processing parts of the bid. It awarded delinquent collections to NCO Financial Systems. The city issued a new bid request later in the year. In mid-2014, it awarded meter operations to SP Plus. Duncan Solutions got ticket processing.

Michael Wolf, a spokesman for SP Plus, declined comment on this story. Duncan Solutions did not respond to requests for comment.

IG’s investigator shows interest in one officer

The Office of Inspector General Investigator first contacted Edmonds about alleged abuses by parking-control officers in August 2014, according to both Edmonds’ account and the Inspector General’s report. Beyond that, their stories diverge.

According to the report, Edmonds was asked to provide documents related to businesses’ complaints about retaliation from parking control officers.

“The Parking Control Division took approximately 9 months to provide the documents requested,” the report says.

But Edmonds remembered it differently.

According to her account in a written response to the report, Eduardo Hernandez did not ask about complaints of retaliation at their first meeting. His questions were limited to the subject of parking-control officers taking extended breaks at downtown coffee shops. He showed Edmonds a video of several parking-control officers sitting in coffee shops and using their personal cell phones, a violation of departmental policy. He was especially interested in one of them.

“He took a particular interest in one PCO, who I identified to him as Andrea Easterling. Investigator Hernandez stated that his girlfriend is a Federal Officer and that PCO Easterling had issued her several parking tickets while patrolling the Federal Complex,” Edmonds wrote.

Edmonds wrote that Eduardo Hernandez didn’t take notes on the meeting, nor did he “provide an official document requesting information from our office.” Instead, he “wrote on a random sheet of paper various information that he would need as part of his investigation,” including copies of parking tickets.

“A great deal of this information and documents requested focused on PCO Easterling,” Edmonds wrote.

Edmonds wrote that she immediately informed Jernigan of the investigation and recommended disciplinary action against the employees she identified in the video. She reminded him, as she did in an earlier email on Aug. 4, that along with her regular work duties, she was already working with the Office of Inspector General on other investigations.

“I did not receive any direction from Col. Jernigan on these investigations,” she wrote of the Aug. 11 meeting with Jernigan. “My work assignments are under the direction of Col. Jernigan and this OIG investigation was not given priority.”

Jernigan again offered no direction or feedback when Edmonds brought up the pending investigations at another meeting two days later, she wrote. A few weeks after that, two other investigators from the Inspector General told Edmonds that other pending investigations — and related information requests — took priority over Hernandez’s.

Edmonds’ account says that over the next several months, she maintained regular contact with Eduardo Hernandez and other investigators, even when she was out sick during much of fall 2014. Edmonds assigned a coworker, Sherida Emery, to the parking-control investigation, emails show. In November, Eduardo Hernandez complained to Edmonds, then on medical leave, that Emery had not produced the requested documents. In response, Edmonds noted that Emery was “overwhelmed” with work. She offered to set up a call with Emery. In the meantime, she wrote, she would pull whatever documents she could from home. Emery provided some of the documents, and status updates for others, the next month, according to Edmonds’ timeline.

Eduardo Hernandez’s report also suggested that Edmonds ignored his requests for historical reports from 2013 and 2014 on citations issued by the parking-control officers under investigation, never contacting the city’s former parking ticket contractor, Xerox, or its new one, Duncan Solutions. But an email from February 2015, in which Edmonds was responding to questions from Hernandez, indicates that Hernandez himself intended to contact Brett Peze of Xerox and Anderson Moore of Duncan Solutions.

Two months later, Hernandez emailed Moore with a request for historical reports. His first question was about Easterling. In that email, at least, Hernandez did not ask about any of the other parking-control officers under investigation.

Still facing termination

Even though she was seeking protection as a whistleblower, Jernigan placed her on emergency suspension in mid-November, though he later withdrew it. But Edmonds is still scheduled for a “pre-termination hearing.”

Her Civil Service whistleblower appeal hearing, originally scheduled for earlier this month, has been delayed until December. The delay came after the city said that she was not yet subjected to any disciplinary action she could appeal.

“Ms. Edmonds has not claimed any improper action by the Appointing Authority for which she seeks whistle-blower status or protection,” a motion from the city reads.

Zanders, Edmonds’ lawyer, said he plans to ask Jernigan and any other Department of Public Works staff members to recuse themselves from her pre-termination hearing.

“This termination matter is so sensitive and so complicated,” he said, “I don’t want anyone in the department to be part of it.”

 

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