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

Two employees of the New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits have reached settlements with the city to leave their jobs voluntarily after being suspended for months in connection with a federal corruption investigation into the department that has resulted in one conviction. 

The settlements were approved by the New Orleans Civil Service Commission on Monday. Under the terms of the settlements, the two employees, Richella Maxwell and Larry Chan, will have their emergency suspensions revoked, and will receive back pay for all the time between the beginning of their suspensions in September to their effective resignation dates — Jan. 15.

In return, Chan — a top building inspector who worked for the city for more than 30 years — will retire. Maxwell will resign. Both agreed to never seek or accept employment with the City of New Orleans again. Maxwell will receive back pay for 86 work days during her suspension, while Chan will receive back pay for 44 work days and sick-leave compensation for 42 days. 

Maxwell was hired to the department in 1998, according to her LinkedIn profile. City permitting records indicate her job involved processing and analyzing building permits. Chan worked for the department since 1987 and was responsible for overseeing all New Orleans building inspectors, according to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate

Maxwell and Chan were given 120-day emergency suspensions without pay in mid-September. According to letters from the city, the suspensions were “the result of an ongoing federal investigation into the illegal issuance of city permits within the Department of Safety & Permits.”

The suspensions were handed down days after The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported that federal prosecutors had been investigating “allegations of wide-ranging corruption” in the department since 2014. Citing unnamed sources, the paper also said that Cantrell was expected to “clean house” in the department as a result of the investigation.

Maxwell and Chan both appealed their suspensions to the Civil Service Commission. At a hearing in October, Maxwell’s lawyer, Brett J. Prendergast, argued that the city had suspended Maxwell without explaining how she was linked to the bribery allegations. The existence of an investigation into the department, he argued, was not enough to suspend employee in that department without additional evidence. He said that the city failed to explain what Maxwell had done wrong. 

Maxwell declined to comment, referring The Lens to Prendergrast. 

“She was suspended improperly in our mind,” Prendergast told The Lens after Monday’s hearing. “We took care of her suspension and it gives her a chance to get on with her life.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither Chan nor his attorney were present at the hearing. 

By the time Maxwell and Chan were suspended in September, the federal investigation had already led to one indictment. In August, former city building inspector Kevin Richardson was federally charged — accused of accepting and paying out bribes — by U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser. 

The indictment alleged that from 2011 to 2019, Richardson solicited and accepted payments from “individuals seeking favorable inspection reports” on properties that didn’t comply with building codes or had never been inspected at all. He accepted $65,000 in bribes, according to an October court filing. He is also accused of paying out $3,000 in bribes to to an unnamed city permit analyst in exchange for issuing permits without required documentation and review. 

Richardson and the city permit analyst would “alter and/or delete city documents and submit material information that resulted in the homeowner or contractor receiving a fraudulent permit and/or certificate of completion,” according to the October filing.

In October, WWL-TV reported that unnamed sources identified Maxwell as that permit analyst.. The Lens has not independently confirmed the report. 

In the Civil Service appeal hearing that month, an assistant city attorney said that federal investigators were looking into Maxwell specifically. Thus far, Maxwell has not faced criminal charges. 

Richardson pleaded guilty in October and now faces up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. He is set to be sentenced early next month. 

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...