In a photo from October, Safety and Permits employee Richella Maxwell fights her 120-day, unpaid suspension related to a federal corruption investigation. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits employee Richella Maxwell went before the city’s Civil Service Commission on Monday to challenge the city’s recent decision to suspend her for 120 days without pay in connection to a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation into the department. 

Maxwell and top city building inspector Larry Chan were suspended last month just days after news broke that federal prosecutors were looking into suspected “wide-ranging corruption” in the department. The federal investigation has thus far resulted in one criminal case, after a federal grand jury handed up a one-count indictment against former city building inspector Kevin Richardson for allegedly accepting and paying out bribes. 

Richardson is accused of accepting bribes from people seeking favorable inspections on properties that didn’t comply with building codes or had never been inspected at all. The indictment also accuses Richardson of paying bribes to an unnamed city permit analyst in exchange for issuing permits without required documentation and review. 

Richardson pleaded not guilty before a federal magistrate judge in late August. But his attorney told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate last month that he intends to change his plea to guilty. He is scheduled for a change of plea hearing on Oct. 29, according to court records. 

According to her LinkedIn profile, Maxwell was hired to the Department of Safety and Permits in 1998. She held the title of “management development specialist” at the time of her suspension, but city permitting records indicate her work has involved processing and analyzing building permits.  

A September letter informing Maxwell of the suspension, signed by Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño, says the “action is the result of an ongoing federal investigation into the illegal issuance of city permits.” But as Maxwell’s attorney pointed out, the letter does not accuse her of being involved in illegally issuing permits. And she has not been charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. 

Her attorney, Brett J. Prendergast, argued that she wasn’t properly notified by the city, and that a mere investigation into the department — without a specific accusation of wrongdoing, either by the city or the federal government — does not give the city due cause to suspend an employee in that department without pay. 

“It’s affecting her ability to pay rent,” Prendergast said. “Investigations are to determine whether there has been misconduct.” 

Assistant City Attorney Will Goforth argued that the suspension was intended to prevent Maxwell from obstructing justice or tampering with evidence. 

The commission voted to take the issue under advisement. According to Prendergast, the board will now deliberate privately and issue a decision to the city and Maxwell. He said he expects that to happen in the next couple of weeks. 

The Department of Safety and Permits has been the subject of a federal investigation since 2014, according to The Times-Picayune/The Advocate

According to the paper, the federal investigation has involved the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the city’s Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

‘She has been told practically nothing’ 

Maxwell’s motion to appeal her suspension includes two letters from the city, one from Sept. 16 and one from Sept. 17, both informing her of the suspension. They provide the same reason for her suspension: “This action is the result of an ongoing federal investigation into the illegal issuance of city permits within the Department of Safety and Permits.” 

Maxwell’s attorney argued that this wasn’t sufficient.

“In fact, they do not indicate that Ms. Maxwell did anything wrong,” the motion said. “Rather, they merely indicate that there is an ongoing federal investigation into the topic. … It is impossible for Ms. Maxwell to fully answer and prepare a defense to her suspension when she has been told practically nothing as to what she has allegedly done wrong.”

During Monday’s hearing, Goforth claimed that the city could provide evidence that the federal 

investigators were looking at Maxwell’s conduct specifically. Goforth declined to comment. Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Goforth said the city had sent a third letter to Maxwell on Sept. 20 that included more detail about the reason for her suspension. Pendergast said that Maxwell never received that letter, and doubted that it even existed. 

Maxwell did receive a letter dated Sept. 20, Pendergast explained, however it was not addressed to her. It was for the other suspended safety and permits employee — Larry Chan. 
In the letter addressed to Chan, the city wrote that he was being suspended for 120 days without pay for an investigation”into your involvement” in the alleged illegal issuance of permits within the Department of Safety and Permits. The Civil Service Department did not immediately respond to a question as to whether Chan is also appealing his suspension.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...