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Watchdog begins work in New Orleans

Robert Cerasoli begins his first day on the job as Inspector General for the city of New Orleans, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007. Robert Cerasoli begins his first day on the job as Inspector General for the city of New Orleans, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007. (AP Photo/Cheryl Gerber)

NEW ORLEANS --He's a government watchdog without any teeth -- for now.

Robert Cerasoli, who was hired this summer to find waste and fight corruption in New Orleans government, began work Wednesday with no staff or permanent office and no promises the city will budget the money he says he needs to be effective.

At this point, it's "absolutely impossible" to do the kind of hands-on investigation and audits many expect, said Cerasoli, the former Massachusetts inspector general who gained prominence for raising questions about a troubled Boston highway project.

A $1.2 million budget would be on the "low end" of what he believes he needs. Cerasoli's current annual budget is $250,000. His salary -- reports have put it at $150,000 or more -- takes up much of that.

But he said he expects the city will pony up the funding to make his job more than "window dressing." He focusing on developing job descriptions and a 2008 budget.

The post was created in late 2006 by the City Council to send a message that New Orleans could be trusted to spend federal recovery aid after Hurricane Katrina. By law, the city is to provide the inspector general office space close to but not in City Hall. The city also is to provide "sufficient and necessary equipment, office supplies and office furnishings to enable the (office of inspector general) to perform its function."

Councilman James Carter said city leaders are looking at "what is necessary to make sure the office is effective." He would not elaborate. But council President Arnie Fielkow said he has asked Cerasoli for a detailed budget, including staffing needs, and is committed to getting Cerasoli the resources he needs to do the job effectively.

"At a time when the city needs what he will bring to the table, it would be foolish for us, as a city, not to provide him with the financial resources he needs to carry out his job," Fielkow said. Cerasoli has suggested a budget as high as possibly $3.8 million, and Mayor Ray Nagin said he hoped all sides would settle somewhere in the middle. He said he expects an "interesting" debate.

Nagin has trumpeted his administration as scandal-free and transparent. Recent federal investigations have uncovered corruption at City Hall, including one case in which City Councilman Oliver Thomas pleaded guilty to taking bribes. But the probes have centered on people and events linked to the administration of Nagin's predecessor, Marc Morial. Morial has not been charged with wrongdoing.

Cerasoli said he hoped the Thomas case would create public support for his office.

For now, Cerasoli will work from an office at Loyola University, whose president chaired the city's Ethics Review Board, which hired Cerasoli in June.

"All the work we put into this," said the Rev. Kevin Wildes Wildes, "we're not going to let it die on the vine."

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