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Friday, January 30, 2009

We will miss you Bob

Mr. Cerasoli, You offered us hope. You showed us that what we want to do to build the New New Orleans can be done. It is up to us to keep going. With luck you can come back and consult.
We wish it had been possible to make you less lonely in our hopeful city. We won't forget you or your contributions. We are grateful and wish you only the best.

Mr. Cerasoli spoke at NorthWest Carrollton's 2008 Night Out Against Crime gathering that was held at the "park" on the corner of Carrollton and Pritchard Place.

See TP Article online & below in full
New Orleans Inspector General Robert Cerasoli quits post, citing health issues
by Brian Thevenot, The Times-Picayune
Thursday January 29, 2009, 10:22 PM

Robert Cerasoli, the veteran Massachusetts investigator who navigated a maze of bureaucracy and politics to found the New Orleans inspector general's office, will resign today to reunite with his family and prepare for surgery to remove potentially dangerous growths.
This morning, he plans to hop in a rental car packed with a few belongings and drive home to Quincy, near Boston.

For the city, the loss of Cerasoli will set back the arduous task of establishing an independent watchdog over City Hall. His hiring 17 months ago, and a subsequent City Charter change that solidified permanent financing for the office, were coups for a city long impervious to reform.
For Cerasoli, 61, the resignation marks an anxious end to a four-decade career in public service, but also allows him to lay down a heavy burden. In interviews before and after recent surgery to remove growths in his neck, and leading up to his decision to resign, Cerasoli agonized over the pressure to meet the lofty expectations of corruption-weary New Orleanians.

"I keep feeling this vicious guilt, " he said. "I've never given up on anything before in my life."
His Blackberry buzzed with an e-mail: "Don't give up -- we need you." It came from a person he had met once, and who had no inkling of Cerasoli's predicament, or the emotional wallop her message would deliver.

Cerasoli started pondering his health and his future in December, after doctors removed two growths from his neck they had feared were cancerous. The growths were benign, but he and doctors discovered two more growths, also potentially cancerous. Those will have to be removed as well.

Before that first surgery, a stranger had approached Cerasoli in one of his favorite haunts, the ornate lobby of Le Pavillon hotel. She told him how much the city needed him.
As she walked away, Cerasoli hid his face and broke into a quiet sob. Such praise has both touched and distressed him.
"It's just so hard, you know, the pressure, " he said, wiping away tears. "It's enormous. It's onerous. I get that all the time, people walking up to me on the street. . . . It's wonderful, seeing the rising expectations of the people here. But the last thing I want to be is the next 'last, best hope for New Orleans.'

"It's not about me. It's about building the office, " he said, repeating what has become a mantra even as he has become an unlikely celebrity in a job that in many places would be held by an anonymous functionary.

Building the office has proved far tougher than Cerasoli envisioned. And the challenges that remain -- even the basic work of clearly defining city agencies, budgets and policies -- are more daunting than a successor might suspect. After 17 months, Cerasoli said, the office still needs to double its staff and garner basic tools and access to records. Still, Cerasoli's experience here has opened a valuable view into the inner workings of a mysterious municipal apparatus.

"On a difficulty scale of one-to-10, it's a 10. I would compare it to governments I've looked at in the developing world, " said Cerasoli, who has given lectures about corruption in such Third World countries as Sierra Leone and Swaziland. In New Orleans, he said, "information technology is in a terrible state. Getting access to information people regularly access in other places is a major problem. Public documents aren't being made public, if they exist at all.
"And I don't think the city government truly understands what the inspector general is supposed to do -- and might provide more resistance as it becomes more clear, " he said.
'Nothing's on the level'

In mid-2007, when New Orleans first advertised for an inspector general, Cerasoli blew off suggestions that he seek the job, arguably the toughest challenge in an arcane profession that operates in the space between auditors and prosecutors.
"Nothing's on the level in New Orleans, " he recalled telling one fellow inspector. "How am I going to get a job there?"

He had just recently accepted a similar job in Philadelphia, then declined it because his ailing mother told him she would die and never forgive him if he left. And Cerasoli always listened to his mother. She had raised him and his sister on a beautician's salary in the hardscrabble community of Quincy Point, near Boston, after his father died when Cerasoli was 10.
Cerasoli continued to get calls about the New Orleans job. He gave the same answer: I'm retired. My mother's dying. I'm not going anywhere.

He had already slogged through an accomplished but high-stress career in public service that started when he was elected as a Democrat to the Massachusetts legislature during the Watergate era. During a 15-year political career, he helped lead bruising efforts to establish a state ethics board, campaign finance rules and other strictures on politicians accustomed to operating in private, and with impunity. In the 1980s, he led an investigation into the prison weekend furlough policy that allowed murderer Willie Horton out of a Massachusetts prison; Horton then committed armed robbery and rape.

After getting appointed as Massachusetts' inspector general, Cerasoli spent a decade probing corruption and inefficiency, capped by several investigations into Boston's over-budget, graft-laden "Big Dig" tunnel.

Cerasoli grew into a workaholic, obsessing over a job he viewed as crucial, even intrinsic, to the public good. When the stress built to a peak, Cerasoli turned to a unique outlet: volunteering at a suicide hot line.

"I wanted to juxtapose my own pressures with those of people under far more extreme pressure than me, to put my problems into context, " Cerasoli said.

Advice at a funeral
After retiring in 2001, Cerasoli tried to decompress. He stayed busy, teaching at a college, compulsively lifting weights at a local gym and giving anti-corruption seminars across Africa and India on the U.S. State Department's nickel. Then New Orleans came calling. And soon, his reason for spurning the job -- his mother's illness -- ceased to be a factor. Mary Cerasoli died of cancer and complications from botched radiation treatments on May 19, 2007. Cerasoli had always kept the New Orleans job in the back of his mind. The advice of a woman at his mother's funeral pushed him to take the prospect seriously.

"You should go someplace and give the knowledge, wisdom and tools you have to somebody who really needs them, " the woman said.

Cerasoli applied, along with 20 others. A few weeks later, he got a call from the Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University and chairman of the city ethics board that hires the inspector general. Cerasoli was the unanimous pick. Cerasoli did not respond at first. His mind wandered. He thought of his mother. If she hadn't wanted him to go, he figured, he wouldn't have gotten the job. He replayed the prescient comments from the woman at the funeral. He recalled how, while watching Hurricane Katrina's aftermath on TV, he had told himself, "I want to do something for the people of New Orleans, " and he wondered whether he really meant it.
"I'll take it, " he said finally, not even asking about the salary.

A monk's existence
In New Orleans, Cerasoli was driven by the same unstinting work ethic that fueled his career in Massachusetts. He began to view the new job as a career capstone. He rented a one-bedroom apartment in the Central Business District and outfitted it with an inflatable mattress, a chair, a vacuum, cheap racks for his suits and three suitcases. No art. No TV. No computer.
"It keeps the edge, " Cerasoli said of his spare digs, peculiar for a man who rakes in a $95,000 Massachusetts pension on top of a $150,000 salary. His quarters reflect an almost maniacal avoidance of entanglements, anything that could even hint at a conflict of interest. If he enjoyed himself too much, or got too close to anyone, Cerasoli said, he would become compromised. So he just worked, rarely socialized, and returned to his cubbyhole of a home.

"He's a monk, " Wildes said of Cerasoli. "When I think of Bob and the way he works and lives his life, I think of a member of a religious order: Everything he does and thinks about is in terms of how it helps or hinders the work." Wildes recalled a meeting at Harrah's New Orleans Casino: Cerasoli, he said, refused to cross the floor without an escort, worried that someone might assume he had a weakness for gambling.

Everything a fight
Though Cerasoli had fully expected the challenge of his career in New Orleans, he was in for a few shocks. The Nagin administration at first offered him a $250,000 budget -- a ludicrously low figure, he said. In Massachusetts, he had overseen a budget of $3 million and a staff of 49.
He spent his first four months working alone in university offices Wildes provided. Eventually, he secured a $3.2 million appropriation from the City Council; permission to hire his own attorneys, a move fought by the Nagin administration; and, most important, a charter change guaranteeing a permanent revenue source.

"But every one of those things was a big fight, " Cerasoli said. "And after we got the money, we couldn't spend it, because everything we bought had to go through the city's purchasing process."

Requests ranging from pencils to lease agreements took weeks or even months to snake through the Nagin administration's approval process. Inquiries often produced excuses: "The computers are down, " or "So-and-so is on vacation, " or "We can't find your paperwork."
"There was always that mysterious hand there, that made you wonder if somebody was trying to stop it, " Cerasoli said.

Unable to spend but two-thirds of his allotted $3.2 million for 2008, Cerasoli shocked and delighted the City Council by returning the rest, a rare move for any city agency.

'Shadow government'
As Cerasoli started luring a pedigreed, experienced staff, he also started trying to understand the machinery of New Orleans municipal government. He found few answers, and an ever-growing list of questions. Just figuring out who runs what has proved an immense challenge, with a government splintered into scores of agencies, commissions and quasi-governmental nonprofit groups, some with separate dedicated tax-revenue streams, their own auditors and scant scrutiny. So far, Cerasoli has put together a list of 140 such city entities, including such curiosities as the Delgado-Albania Plantation Commission. His inspectors found records of a New Orleans Planetarium Commission, created in 1986, but couldn't confirm whether it still exists, or ever did.

"One main goal has just been to simply identify the entity that is the city of New Orleans, " Cerasoli said. "Nobody can give you an organizational chart."

So Cerasoli and his team have started one on a wall inside their office in the Federal Reserve building, a project he said might take years to accurately complete. Cerasoli cannot say whether the "vastly decentralized" structure, unlike any city Cerasoli has ever come across, leads to any specific wrongdoing or failures. But he said it surely makes it tough to track government and thus provides countless opportunities for chicanery.

"I call it the shadow government, " Cerasoli said.

Cerasoli's office finally issued its first report in December, which said the city violated its charter by granting employees 273 take-home cars rather than the legally allowed 60, and could save up to $1 million with reforms. Cerasoli attributes the slow startup to the obstacles he had establishing his office. He said he has launched other investigations that he cannot yet publish or talk about.

"We finished the crime camera investigation on the same day as the take-home cars, " he said, referring to the city's expensive and often inoperable surveillance cameras. "But it's no longer in my hands, and I can't say where it is."

But he offered a hint, noting that the inspector general's office, as a matter of practice, turns over investigations that unearth potential crimes to law enforcement agencies, mainly the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI. Some of the other probes could result in published reports; others may follow another path, Cerasoli said.

A tough decision
As the new year approached, Cerasoli prepared to go under the knife. In early January, doctors cut two large growths from near his neck. He choose to forgo general anesthesia, so he was awake as doctors cut out one white, egg-sized oval and then a smaller one.
After the surgery, he asked to see the larger growth.

"It looked like a piece of haddock, or codfish, " he said in his heavy New England accent. The tests came back negative for cancer. He came back to New Orleans, hoping to put his office on a firmer footing.

He returned to another tussle with Nagin, this one over Cerasoli's recent attempt to buy guns for investigators. The administration refused to process the request; Nagin questioned the right of the inspector general to create a "paramilitary operation" armed with "submachine guns."
Last weekend, another trip to Boston brought the discovery of two more growths. His doctors gave him a reality check.

"You're 61 years old. You had a career. You retired, " one doctor said. "You're not young anymore. Why do you want to put yourself through this kind of stress?"

Cerasoli couldn't argue the point. That night, he sat down with his wife and adult children and made the decision. On Monday, he returned to New Orleans for perhaps the last time.
"I can't stay in this faraway place, working against tremendous odds, trying to shape something that will take several more years to shape, " he mused. "I feel a need to get home and deal with this. It's just so lonely here."

. . . . . . .
Brian Thevenot can be reached at or 504.826.3482.

Also see Gambit Weekly "Being Bob Cerasoli"

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