Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mr. Meffert's Bad Day

Posted By on Sat, Nov 7, 2009 at 4:11 AM

BY ALLEN JOHNSON JR.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten today announced a 63-count indictment against Gregory Meffert, the city’s first chief technology officer -- raising questions about how much has changed and how much has stayed the same at City Hall under outgoing Mayor Ray Nagin.

Inaugurated as a “reform” mayor in 2002, Nagin tasked Meffert with leading the modernization of the city’s antiquated information systems and finding high-tech solutions to urban problems -- resulting in administration claims of millions of dollars in savings.

Meffert, 44, his wife Linda Meffert, 42, and city vendor Mark St. Pierre, 46, were accused of charges ranging from conspiracy and money laundering to bribery and filing false tax returns -- in connection with an alleged scheme that unfolded around the same time Nagin appointed Meffert as the city’s tech chief and as an executive assistant to the Mayor on May 5, 2002.

Specifically, Greg Meffert is accused of using his public position to manipulate the city’s procurement process so that St. Pierre and his private companies would receive millions of dollars in city contracts -- without going through traditional competitive bid processes. The indictment includes allegations Meffert improperly manipulated the city’s $4 million “crime cameras” contract process to benefit St. Pierre.

According to the indictment, St. Pierre and his companies benefited from the corruption, responding with illegal “payoffs or kickbacks” to Meffert and his wife. Between 2004 and 2007, St. Pierre paid the Mefferts more than $860,000 in funds, credit card purchases and membership dues, including a Mardi Gras parade.

The Mefferts and St. Pierre were not arrested. They are expected to formally respond to the charges in their first court appearance in the case next Thursday.

The last of Nagin’s original “All-Star Team” - the mayor’s term for the top management team he brought to City Hall --Greg Meffert left city government on July 15, 2006. Meffert is accused of corrupting city contracts even as the Mayor received widespread public praise for declaring “war” on municipal corruption in the summer of 2002. Some 80 people were arrested in a low-level city corruption probe of several agencies. The investigation turned out to be a “shoo-shoo." However, the novelty of a New Orleans politician attacking corruption won Nagin the admiration of many locals at the time- including Letten.

In the August 2003 edition of Governing magazine, a publication of Congressional Quarterly, Letten said, “Ray (Nagin) has helped in the perception and reality of a city government as an institution that’s trying to clean itself up. He’s very popular in federal enforcement circles. He has our confidence.”

Asked Friday what has changed since that interview six years ago, Letten demurred.

“I’m not going to tell you whether circumstances have changed or not," the federal prosecutor said, then added: "I think that statement was certainly true (then)... But I’m not going to indicate whether anything is true today because the problem is that portends me commenting directly or indirectly about what we [the feds] are thinking, about where we may be going and I’m just not able to do that.”

Letten also declined to say which city agencies or officials are cooperating with the ongoing federal probe of Meffert. Nagin is on record as encouraging all city employees to cooperate with any federal investigation.

In an e-mail response to news of Meffert’s indictment, city communications director Ceeon D. Quiett wrote: “Considering Mr. Meffert is a former employee, the administration, as a whole, has made tremendous strides in opening up local government to make as much information available as possible online in a transparent manner, such as property tax assessments, professional services contracts, departmental reports, recovery reports, etc...therefore, no one incident, should diminish the efforts of many.”

However, an undated web page of the city web site that Mr. Meffert helped to enhance in Nagin's first time, cast the city's first technology chief in a far more favorable light than did the city spokesperson.

"By bringing in the technological expertise very rarely found in a municipal environment, Mr. Meffert created what many Fortune 100 vendors have noted as a new model for taking on the challenges all city governments face,” according to the list of “e-Government Initiatives” found on the city web site late Friday, hours after Mr. Meffert's indictment.

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