New Orleans panel endorses ethics resolution

Published 11:10 pm Wednesday, January 23, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A City Council panel on Wednesday endorsed extending state-level ethics reforms to local governments and to strengthening New Orleans’ office of inspector general.

The resolutions came up 2 1/2 weeks before lawmakers are to meet in Baton Rouge for a special session on ethics reform, called by new Gov. Bobby Jindal. They also mark the council’s latest effort to try to clean up New Orleans’ image as politically corrupt as the city tries to instill public confidence in its ability to properly spend Hurricane Katrina recovery aid.

In late 2006, the council created an office of inspector general. Robert Cerasoli began work last September, but is still trying to get his office up and running. He hopes to have much of his staff hired by the end of March, after finally getting office space and a fatter budget.

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The full council is set to take up both measures Thursday.

Council President Arnie Fielkow said that if officials are serious about attracting businesses and changing the city’s mind-set, ‘‘it starts with the fundamentals, and in this case, the fundamentals are making sure that this is an honest community and state and this is a state and a community that doesn’t have the reality or perception of corruption.’’

Fielkow pushed a resolution that supports extending any ethics reforms passed by the Legislature to parish and city governments.

The council’s Governmental Affairs panel also backed proposals aimed at strengthening the IG’s office. Those include establishing the office as a law enforcement agency, bolstering its subpoena powers and calling for records gathered during preliminary investigations to be kept confidential.

Cerasoli said the proposal would put into state law principles the council enacted in setting up the office and are ‘‘essential’’ for him to do his job effectively.

For example, he said, it’s not clear whether, under local ordinance, a contractor outside of Louisiana or New Orleans, who did work with the city, would have to honor any subpoena issued by his office. Subpoena powers would be strengthened if they were in state law, he said.

Several area lawmakers expressed support for the proposal Wednesday.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers, confirmed that Jindal’s office had received a copy but did not answer whether the plan would be included in any reforms proposed by Jindal, who took office last week.

‘‘We have received recommendations from many different groups,’’ Sellers wrote in an e-mail.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who is spearheading a federal crackdown on corruption, said he could not comment on any recommendations. But he said the inspector general is ‘‘a huge leap forward both for the city in its image, and he deserves all the tools and powers to carry out his duties.’’

Associated Press reporter Mary Foster contributed to this report.