Government & Politics
 

Parking administrator who was forced out says deputy mayor spoke of bid-rigging

The former parking director for New Orleans, who is appealing the city’s January decision to fire her, said today that a top city official told her he was aware that city employees were trying to steer a multimillion-dollar parking-ticket contract in 2012 to a preferred bidder, but that he did nothing to stop it.

In a Civil Service appeal hearing, former Parking Administrator Zepporiah Edmonds recounted her conversation with former Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant, who now serves two roles as the head of the Sewerage & Water Board and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s infrastructure czar. She said he admitted knowing that members of a so-called “technical review committee,” formed to vet the bidders, hoped to secure the business for Milwaukee-based Duncan Solutions.

Edmonds complained in writing about the contracting process to Grant and her boss, Department of Public Works Director Mark Jernigan. Edmonds, who took an involuntary retirement to retain her health insurance after the city informed her she was to be fired, now contends that her complaints about the contracting process led to a pattern of retaliation that would eventually end with a move to dismiss her. She is claiming whistleblower status with the Civil Service Commission and has filed a federal lawsuit against the city. Her allegations are also being investigated by the city’s Ethics Review Board. The investigation focused on Grant, Jernigan and Linda Copeland, a Department of Public Works employee, as well as Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux and an Office of Inspector General investigator who was responsible for a 2015 report that criticized Edmonds. In March, the Ethics Review Board decided to end the investigation into Quatrevaux and his staff, finding no violations.*

As The Lens reported last 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.”

Kerkow was connected to the company through his former job at ACS/Xerox, another bidder on the contract. While there, he worked with a number of people who would later join Duncan, including members of Duncan’s bid team.

Edmonds testified that after she sent an email to Grant and Jernigan in July 2012 detailing some of her concerns, Grant summoned her to a meeting. She previously said that Grant strongly advised her to stop sending emails about the issue during the meeting. At today’s hearing, she went into greater detail.

“I would prefer not to repeat some of the things that were said” by Grant, she said after her lawyer, Dominic Varrecchio asked her about the meeting. Varrecchio asked her to summarize it.

“Stop sending these so-and-so emails. We know these so-and-sos are close. Let these M-Fers do what they’re going to do,” she recalled Grant saying, referring to Square, McKenna and Kerkow. “If their ass is going to jail, we’re not going to jail.”

She also testified that Jernigan told her that First Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, who asked to form the technical review team, was “guiding the train” in the selection process, which she also wrote in a December letter to the Ethics Review Board.

Kopplin and Grant did not respond to requests for comment. Grant is slated to testify at a later hearing.

“This issue is a matter of ongoing litigation. Ms. Edmonds’ claims are unfounded. And her statements are obviously a one-sided effort to win her appeal,” Landrieu spokesman Hayne Rainey wrote in an email.

Jorge Hernandez, a parking division employee who testified on Edmonds’ behalf, said that he was also concerned about the way the process was going in 2012. He worked on a pricing analysis showing that Duncan’s bid would cost the city nearly $1 million per year more — over a five year contract — than the next highest bidder.

“I know I had deep, deep reservations about why one company, why we were being steered to one company that was not performing and was going to charge the city $5 million more over the life of the contract,” Hernandez said.

Duncan Solutions did not end up winning the best score from the city’s selection committee. Another company, SP Plus, did. But after ACS/Xerox and Duncan protested, the city cancelled the bid. The city later split the contract into two components. SP Plus got meter operations. Duncan got ticket processing.

Edmonds, who said she consistently received high ratings in her annual performance evaluations during her three-decade career at the city, said her relationship with city officials started to deteriorate after the contract issue. In 2014, Jernigan brought on a new human resources manager for the department, Linda Copeland. Edmonds testified that Copeland, a former library employee, was brought in to provide an excuse for firing her.

She said Copeland, who is also named as a defendant in Edmonds’ federal suit, immediately tried to undermine her, promising employees raises and promotions she could not deliver and going around Edmonds to communicate with city contractors. Copeland also tried to get employees to turn against Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Robins, who worked with the department on personnel issues.

Several parking division employees “all came to me separately, and said, ‘Ms. Copeland is telling us not to work with Ms. Robins,’“ Edmonds said. “They had some history at the library that I’m not aware of.”

Edmonds said Copeland developed a grudge against her when she refused to go along with Copeland’s agenda.

Robins, who is representing the city as well as Copeland in the Civil Service case, advised Copeland against speaking to The Lens. Copeland will be called to testify at a later hearing.

A major part of the justification for Edmonds’ firing came last summer in a report by the Office of Inspector General on parking control officers. The report focused on two of them for spending their working hours sitting in downtown coffee shops and hotel lobbies. When business owners complained, the report said, the officers would retaliate by issuing tickets to their employees and customers.

The lead investigator on the report, Eduardo Hernandez, later admitted that his girlfriend was repeatedly ticketed by one of the officers identified in the report, but the Office of Inspector General denied that it was a conflict of interest.

The report also accused Edmonds of refusing to cooperate in the investigation. But Jorge Hernandez disputed the claims. He said that not only did Edmonds cooperate, she advised her staff to be forthcoming with OIG investigators. At a meeting about the parking control officer report, Jorge Hernandez said, Edmonds even tried to give investigators a tip. High-level city officials, she claimed, were directing parking employees not to enforce parking violations adjacent to certain large downtown hotels.

It’s not clear if the charge was ever investigated. It did not appear in the report. OIG General Counsel Suzanne Wisdom declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

As to the claims that Edmonds refused to work with investigators, Jorge Hernandez said, “Those allegations, they’re nonsense and they’re false.”

After he finished answering questions from Varrecchio and Robins, Jorge Hernandez asked city officials not to take action against him because of his testimony.

“I understand that my testimony is not beneficial to the city,” he said. “I just want to go on the record to say that I hope no punitive measures are being taken against me because of my testimony.”

*Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the Ethics Review Board is no longer investigating the Office of Inspector General or any of its staff.

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