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More questions about City’s statue-removal budget

26th June 2017   ·   0 Comments

Several weeks after the completion of the statue-removal project that took down four Confederate-era statues from their public spaces across the city, a new round of questions about the $2.1 million budget for the project that was completed on May 19.

Among those questions are concerns about the amount of money paid to a Dallas, Texas-based security firm, FOX 8 News reported last Monday.

In an investigative report, the news station noted that it didn’t take long for the Landrieu administration to pay Trident Response Group for services rendered during the monument-removal project without much in the way of documentation.

“I don’t understand it,” Tulane law professor Joel Friedman told FOX 8 in response to that proof. “I don’t know how that is possible.”

There was very little written documentation provided by the contractor, which raised some eyebrows in the Crescent City last week.

According to FOX 8, one line that described services rendered as “strategic advisory and support services” was viewed by the Landrieu administration as sufficient to warrant a payment of $175,000.

The $175,000 payment is but a small portion of the total bill submitted by Trident, which earned $710,000 for its role in the project.

FOX 8 News reported that Trident was hired by the Landrieu administration for risk assessment, surveillance, intelligence gathering and extra security at three of the Confederate monument sites, as the City of New Orleans prepared to remove the monuments.

“No one would deny that [the removals were] controversial,” Friedman told FOX 8. “And so, when the public is concerned about whether to have the project done or not, seems to me the City should have gone overboard, in making sure that it had detailed specification as to what it would pay for and under what circumstances — for a project that many people didn’t want them to do in the first place.

FOX 8 News reported that Trident provided the City of New Orleans with very few details or documentation about the services that resulted in a bill totaling $710,000.

“There’s no explanation as to what these people did,” Friedman notes. “There is an explanation of the nature of the person, the title of the person and how many hours, but no explanation of what they did in those hours, why those number of hours were required. It seems to me a huge number of hours over a very short period for, quote, ‘security.’”

In the wake of the April 24 overnight removal of the Liberty Place monument — the first of four to be removed — the Landrieu administration said it needed additional resources.

“What we wanted to make sure was that we were prepared for, had all the resources necessary and that we weren’t overlooking any risks that could have been associated with what was taking place,” Aaron Miller, the City’s director of homeland security and emergency preparedness.

The Landrieu administration told FOX 8 News that Trident was one of the only contractors with an expertise and willingness to do the work.

“Think about the absurdity of what we actually had to do to keep people safe in this instance,” Ryan Berni, the deputy mayor of external affairs, said. “And luckily it was a team effort of the New Orleans Police Department, the FBI, the State Police — we’d engage National Guard if necessary, throughout that effort — and of course, Trident, and really every federal/state/local resource at our disposal.”

City leaders told FOX 8 that the invoices are purposefully vague.

“Because of some of the particulars involved and some of the locations, some of the number of individuals involved in these things, we don’t want to put anyone at risk,” Miller explained. “And so, some of these invoices contain what we believe to be the appropriate level of information. And we verified it through our meetings with them, through the discussions that we’ve had in the threat analysis and through receiving… sort of the risk information that they provided to us.”

FOX 8 News reported that the City signed the contract with Trident on May 4; the final monument was removed on May 19. The city’s homeland security department says its representatives worked hand in hand with Trident, and monitored their work daily.

But apparently, a line-by-line account of employees’ hours and duties doesn’t exist. For one week, all that is known is that an average of six field operators worked 345 hours — their rate, $250 an hour.

“Gary” was a strategic adviser for 68 hours — his rate, $250 an hour. And “Bob” worked 83 hours at a $275 rate. So, in seven days, “Bob” worked 83 hours as a strategic adviser at $275 an hour.

Friedman said that there is no way to confirm whether “Bob” worked those hours. “We don’t know if he did it,” he told FOX 8. “We don’t know what he did. We don’t know whether what he did was necessary or is just padding. And I’m not saying that it was improper — my point, in response to your question, is we don’t know. That’s the problem. It’s the lack of monitoring in a situation where they’re using public money when the City is strapped for funds.”

“We believe that the invoices are sufficient, knowing that the homeland security office has gone over the details before processing payment,” Berni told FOX 8.

FOX 8 News’ review of the Trident invoices found that one of them, a May 18 invoice for $150,000, includes payments made for security on May 23.

“Either that’s a typographical error, which I doubt… But normally you would not get billed for anticipated labor until you know what’s been done, what service has been provided,” Friedman says. “It’s hard for me to understand how they could bill for what they anticipate.”

In fact, the City paid the bill on May 19, four days before much of the actual service was performed.

Friedman calls that shocking. “I cannot explain why they would pay in advance for service,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense. Who gets paid in advance?”

FOX 8 News asked Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni if the City typically pays vendors before they do the work. “Again, there is nothing typical about this project,” he responds, “because of the threats and the nature of everything involved. I think, again, this was not anything like anything else that city government has ever had to do.”

There’s more. Trident earned a total of $1.1 million for about three weeks of work. The company also made $400,000 from the non-profit Foundation for Louisiana, which received private donations to take down the monuments.

The two invoices submitted to the foundation also have few details. Fox 8 News found the first invoice to the nonprofit dated May 12 — but it’s stamped paid one day earlier, May 11. The other is dated May 12, but Trident says it received payment four days before it sent that invoice.

“That’s very strange,” Friedman said. “I don’t know how you could pay a bill before you received the bill. I don’t know how that is possible.”

Clint Bruce founded Trident Response Group. One online article says that the former U.S. Navy SEAL helped evacuate 900 people when Hurricane Katrina hit the region. That led him to start Trident in 2005.

Friedman said Trident followed the language of its contract. But he wishes City officials were able to give taxpayers a better account of exactly what $700,000 of tax money paid for.

On June 16, Take ‘Em Down Nola held a press conference on the steps of City Hall during which it accused the Landrieu administration of using Trident Response Group to spy on members of Take ‘Em Down Nola and other Black community activists in New Orleans.

The group alleges that Trident hacked Take ‘Em Down Nola’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Landrieu administration on June 14 to determine “what services were agreed to and rendered.”

Tyronne Walker, a spokesman for the Landrieu administration, disputed the claims made by Take ‘Em Down Nola.

This article originally published in the June 26, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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