WWL’s investigation exposing corruption in a city agency triggered a raid by the FBI to seize records just hours later. The three-part investigation, Hidden Dangers, reveals how months of painstaking, dogged detective work uncovered a practice literally ready to explode. And linear TV news viewers tuned in at the appointed time to watch.
On Thursday, Nov. 4, WWL-TV, Tegna’s CBS affiliate in New Orleans, aired an investigation exposing corruption at a the city’s Sewerage and Water Board.
Hours after that investigation aired during WWL’s 10 p.m. news, the FBI raided the agency to prevent potential evidence from being removed.
“They had no choice,” says David Hammer, WWL’s investigative reporter.
Hammer says the three-part series of investigations, Hidden Dangers, into the city’s Sewerage and Water Board, named names and detailed their connections into how the board’s employees were falsifying licensing and inspections of gas hookups around the city, creating a literally explosive situation.
“The next morning at 8, they raided the office for those documents and had a U-Haul truck full of boxes to be able to get those records so that they couldn’t be tampered with,” Hammer says.
This isn’t the first time Hammer and WWL ‘s team of investigators, which include Katie Moore, investigative reporter and anchor, and TJ Pipitone, photojournalist, have looked into the major failures of the safety and permits process in New Orleans.
When parts of the Hard Rock Hotel under construction collapsed in October of 2019, killing three, Hammer and his team exposed how they tracked inspectors’ GPS in their city vehicles which showed “they were not stopping near the site on the days that they claimed to go there to approve the work for pours of the concrete before it ended up collapsing,” Hammer says.
The investigation led to a recommendation from the inspector general’s office that they be charged with falsifying public records and other crimes and malfeasance, Hammer says.
That story led Hammer to the Sewerage and Water Board which handles all the plumbing permits and inspections in the city on residences and commercial properties, Hammer says.
As Hammer began investigating, he found that the board’s permitting process was not automated and available online, but kept on paper index cards within one office.
Hammer spent months downloading thousands and thousands of files of what city records were available online for gas work permits, and cross-referencing them to find out who was getting the permits.
“What I discovered was that the heads of the plumbing department at the Sewerage and Water Board were getting private work as the gas fitters on hundreds and hundreds of jobs where their staff was also approving the plumbing work on the same jobs,” Hammer says. “So it was a whole circular arrangement.”
When Hammer sought access to the paper records on the index cards, “they always had some kind of obstacle placed in my path,” Hammer says, like making the records available only after normal business hours.
Hammer says the city says it’s working to scan and digitize those records, but won’t be done until the spring of 2022.
“The task will be even harder now because a large portion of the still-paper-only records have been seized by the FBI,” Hammer says.
Because of the danger involved with gas lines, Hammer says the amount of time his team spent investigating the self-dealing practices was worth it.
“I had a sound bite from a state legislator saying this is dangerous because it could ignite with just a spark,” Hammer says.
Hammer’s investigation led to resignations, suspensions and licenses being revoked.
Television news viewers tuned into WWL’s 10 p.m. newscasts to watch the first two parts of the investigations on Thursday and Friday nights.
According to WWL, the household ratings for the 10 p.m. newscast on Thursday out-performed the 9 p.m. CBS program that lead into the news, and was stronger than the overall sweep average for November and October of 2021, and from last November. In the area of the city most affected by the story, the HH ratings were a couple points higher on both nights.
Hammer, whose family goes back seven generations in New Orleans, believes the ratings “say how invaluable we are. I am very proud that WWL gives us the time to do these kinds of long-term investigations and the air time to do a three-part series about it.”
And judging from some of the comments from viewers, they see value in these investigations, too.
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