Zurik: City inspectors approved work at the Hard Rock Hotel site, but GPS shows they were not there

Updated: Feb. 17, 2020 at 9:55 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - New Orleans City Hall officials are investigating whether employees signed off on inspections at the construction site of the Hard Rock Hotel without visiting the project.

The construction site collapsed on October 12, 2019, killing three men. The bodies of two of the workers have yet to be recovered from the site. Since the collapse, several agencies have opened investigations into the collapse and the city’s safety and permits office.

FOX 8 News has obtained and analyzed GPS data from the City of New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits that shows several times inspectors logged they signed off on projects at the site, but vehicle data shows they did not visit.

“What you did is what any investigator we hope is doing,” FOX 8 Legal Analyst Joe Raspanti said.

On July 18, 2019, records from the Department of Safety and Permits showed out of 21 vehicles in service that day not one came close to the Hard Rock Hotel construction site.

The inspections log from the city shows inspector Julie Tweeter signed off on work at the construction site that day, but GPS records from the department’s vehicle fleet seems to tell a different story. Through the data, FOX 8 was able to determine which vehicle Tweeter likely drove. It stopped at her house for nearly two hours around noon but never came close to the Hard Rock site at 1031 Canal Street.

GPS records from the City of New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits show the stops made...
GPS records from the City of New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits show the stops made by one vehicle, believed to have been used by inspector Julie Tweeter. She approved a project at the Hard Rock Hotel site on that date, but GPS records show she did not visit the site.(WVUE-TV)

On September 16, Tweeter also claimed to have visited the site. Records show she noted the construction site ‘passed’ inspection and gave the approval to pour slab on the 17th floor. The GPS records show that day Tweeter came close to the site once, parking at 314 North Rampart, two and a half blocks away from the construction site. The GPS data shows the vehicle was stopped for six minutes. It takes approximately four minutes to walk from that address to the construction site, meaning if the information is accurate, it is unlikely she would have been able to walk to the site, inspect the 17th floor and walk back to her car in six minutes.

FOX 8 reviewed Safety and Permits GPS data from July 1 until the day of the October collapse and compared that data to the city’s inspection log of the Hard Rock Hotel site. During that time period, city inspectors claimed to visit the Hard Rock site nine times. In our analysis of the data, we found three cases where GPS data shows inspectors parked a city vehicle near the site. There were six instances in the city’s inspection log that do not have corresponding GPS data showing a city vehicle at the Hard Rock site.

“Unless they can prove they got there some other way -- they Ubered themselves there -- but unless they can do that, that’s fairly damning evidence that they didn’t do what they said they were going to do and if that’s the case, they’re going to have a problem,” FOX 8 Legal Analyst Joe Raspanti said.

On October 1, less that two weeks before the deadly collapse, Inspector Julie Tweeter noted the hotel site passed a slab inspection, but in the GPS data provided by the city, it does not show a safety and permits vehicle near the site that day.

FOX 8 reached out to the City of New Orleans to inquire whether the GPS data was accurate, they responded with the following statement:

“The Cantrell administration launched an internal and external investigation into the Office of Safety and Permits in response to systemic issues in the department. Those assessments remain ongoing. Once completed, the City will respond as appropriate regarding any employees found to have engaged in misconduct. We are prepared to take whatever action is necessary, from employee discipline to referral to law enforcement authorities.

“The OIG has made clear that there are ongoing investigations with state and federal partners regarding possible criminal conduct. For this reason, we have no further comment.”

FOX 8 Legal Analyst Joe Raspanti said if an inspector in fact did claim to visit the hotel site and didn’t -- they could be charged in a criminal case.

“Certainly there’s civil liability that could be had in this thing,” he said. “But the potential for criminal liability could be anything from malfeasance because it’s a public entity that did not do their job and it caused these results -- and even I could see it going to negligent homicide where you have to prove gross negligence.”

Raspanti said the information uncovered by FOX 8 certainly opens the city itself up to potential litigation.

City of New Orleans GPS data shows likely visits by members of the city's safety and permits...
City of New Orleans GPS data shows likely visits by members of the city's safety and permits department to the construction site of the Hard Rock Hotel.(WVUE-TV)

Of the dates referenced in the city’s inspection log, we know a vehicle went to the site three times on August 29, 2019. One visit was for 32 minutes, another for 26 minutes and a third for five minutes. The only other likely inspection at the site since July 1, according to the city’s GPS data, came September 20 when a city vehicle was stopped at the construction site for twenty minutes.

Less than a month later, the construction site would collapse -- killing three men and leaving a scar on the city’s skyline with an exact cause still unknown.

Upon learning of FOX 8′s story, a city spokesperson released the following statement:

"As part of our ongoing investigation into the Department of Safety and Permits, we are evaluating potential discrepancies in the department’s inspection records. The outcome of our departmental assessment will dictate next steps, which may include discipline up to and including termination and/or referral to law enforcement authorities. Moreover, the OIG has made clear that concurrent investigations into criminal activity are occurring, and the City is fully cooperating with any and all ongoing investigations.

“The City has been advised that Julie Tweeter has retained counsel.”

FOX 8 has attempted to contact Tweeter for a comment on this story but have not been able to reach her.

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