- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

NEW ORLEANS Mayor C. Ray Nagin, a political neophyte, defeated a host of experienced candidates earlier this year, vowing to make New Orleans a clean, vibrant city where business leaders could operate without "greasing the palms" of administration favorites.
Within days of taking office, the former cable TV executive created a special team of detectives to investigate myriad allegations of wrongdoing in several city departments, and on July 22 the city was stunned when police arrested dozens of city workers.
Mr. Nagin then fired or re-assigned several midlevel employees and closed down the city's brake tag inspection stations, which were being investigated, in what he called the opening salvo of a battle to root out "generations of corruption in our city."
The surprising move revitalized citizens like nothing in recent memory.
Talk shows discussed nothing else for days, while the mayor's office and the Metropolitan Crime Commission an independent, local watchdog group received thousands of tips about corrupt activities.
People now stop the mayor everywhere he goes with plaudits and encouragement, he said last week. But there are some drawbacks to opening up to scrutiny a system that has been a veritable joke around the world.
"I've even gotten some threats, and some family members of mine have gotten some threats," he said.
"But that's part of the game," he snapped. "I'm not going to be intimidated by any of this We're going to move forward and clean this city up. Let the chips fall where they may."
While the furor has surrounded relatively minor infractions city workers accused of selling inspection stickers for as little as $20 for vehicles that often needed heavy repair the probe and Mr. Nagin's commitment go beyond that.
One high-ranking official in Mr. Nagin's administration said the FBI had been given information of widespread fraud in federally funded projects involving a minimum of $100 million in rip-offs in recent years.
Profiteering from federal projects is a problem Mr. Nagin said officials raised when he recently traveled to Washington to meet with federal agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"They started out by basically saying they had spent $450 million in New Orleans the past four or five years, and they could account for only about $150 million in hard costs," Mr. Nagin told listeners.
"They didn't say anything illegal was going on," he went on, "but they just said that a disproportionate amount of the money was going toward soft costs, which are engineers, attorneys, accountants and what have you, and they were very upset about it."
Mr. Nagin says he wants the nation to understand that unlike before, New Orleans today is a city where investors can operate without the payoffs and demands they once faced.
"This is not about any one or two individuals," he said "This is about a whole system of government that we're trying to fix."
But while the citizenry seems solidly behind the mayor, some especially the city workers fear the close scrutiny.
"These people feel like they are being deliberately humiliated, stigmatized and embarrassed for things others may have done," said Wade Rathke, organizer for the Local 100 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents nearly 30 percent of the city's 7,500 workers.
"This seems, relatively speaking, small potatoes," he added. He said most of his union members earn under $12,000 annually, and hundreds are on food stamps.
The effort to fix the city's system really began when Mr. Nagin's chief administrator, Kimberly Williamson, reported for her first day at work and an aide handed her a tape recording. It was an unidentified woman explaining how more than $1.8 million had been misappropriated from city funds on a recent project.
That tape was turned over to the police and then to the FBI, which reportedly is enhancing it in an attempt to find the recorder.
Mrs. Williamson quickly held a staff meeting of city department heads and warned them that if any of them knew of corruption, they had better report it and fast.
Within days, she said, an unbelievable amount of materials found their way to her desk. When she reported the situation to the mayor, she said Mr. Nagin simply responded, "Root it out."
And like her boss, Mrs. Williamson is going after this cleanup like a tiger.
"We will not be threatened. We know we're doing the right thing here," she said.

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