Lee Zurik Investigation: Ethics charges filed in `Playing With Fire` case
The State Ethics Board has charged one current member of the New Orleans Firefighters Pension Board and a former member. The charges are the result of our Playing with Fire investigation.
After we detailed questionable spending and management at the Firefighters Pension Board, they had had enough of our questions.
"The board doesn't want me to give any more interviews," board CEO and secretary-treasurer Richie Hampton told us at one point.
The board defiantly defended a peculiar arrangement that allowed Hampton to serve as a board member and a board employee at the same time.
"We don't believe that's against the law," Hampton told us.
The Ethics Board disagreed with Hampton and voted to slap him with two charges, both the result of our investigation.
The first charge accuses Hampton of violating a part of the law that says a board member cannot enter into a contract with the board on which he serves. Hampton has been serving simultaneously as a board member and as a board employee. And he has a four-year contract to be CEO, getting an annual salary of $160,000 plus six weeks of paid vacation and six weeks of paid sick leave. The board says that arrangement is against the law.
For the second charge, we have to go back to the summer of 2009, when Hampton retired as a firefighter and left the board for six months but remained on as a board employee.
The ethics law has a provision that prevents a former board member from working for that board for two years.
When we presented those findings, both Hampton and the board's attorney said we were way off.
Hampton's response was, "Well, I have the contract to work as an at-will employee, as well… There is no problem with me working in that capacity."
"He continued on as an employee," said board attorney Louis Robein. When we stated our findings that Hampton could not legally do that, Robein replied, "I don't think you have an ethics opinion to that effect."
Now the Ethics Board has issued its opinion, saying Hampton and the board broke the law.
The board also charged a current firefighter, Tim McConnell -- he's the assistant superintendent at the New Orleans Fire Department.
McConnell spent 17 months as a volunteer board member and a paid board employee – again, a violation of the law. The Ethics Board charged him with being paid by the board on which he serves. The charge may lead to a hefty fine for McConnell.
The sanctions against Hampton could be more significant. He could face a fine and be removed from his position as board CEO and secretary-treasurer.
We reached out to Hampton and McConnell for their comments. Hampton said it wouldn't be appropriate to comment at this time, and McConnell has not responded to our request.