Michael Gaynor
May 22, 2006
Will Louisiana lunacy ever end?
By Michael Gaynor

Insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Lunacy: any of various forms on insanity; insanity amounting to a lack of capacity or of responsibility in the eyes of the law; wild foolishness; extravagant folly; a foolish act.

Ray Nagin was re-elected as Mayor of the City of New Orleans, aka the Big Easy, aka Mayor Nagin's Chocolate City.

The opportunistic former cable television executive who was first elected to office in 2002, right after switching his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, proved himself unfit to be Mayor, and has done nothing to prove himself fit to oversee one of the greatest rebuilding projects in American history. But he was elected and re-elected, and he will be involved in the project so long as he remains Mayor..

If the voters of New Orleans actually elected a great public servant, it would be refreshing. But they have chosen poorly. Their longtime Congressman is William Jefferson, about whom The Washington Post wrote on February 16, 2006: "Federal investigators are targeting the Democratic congressman, 58, for allegedly demanding cash and other favors for himself and relatives, in exchange for using his congressional clout to arrange African business deals. A former aide recently pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson and is cooperating with authorities, and sources familiar with the case say a plea agreement with the lawmaker is being explored."

God help New Orleans!

When it was clear that he had won, Mayor Nagin looked forward and crowed: "This is a great day for the city of New Orleans. This election is over, and it's time for this community to start the healing process. It's time for us to stop the bickering. IIt's time for us to stop measuring things in black and white and yellow and Asian. It's time for us to be one New Orleans."

THAT would be a refreshing change. Having been re-elected, Mayor Nagin was in a position to call for it prospectively. He had won, however, not because he had proven himself to be competent and righteous, but because he is black and the bulk of the New Orleans voters are black too and they wanted to keep the mayoralty in black hands, even if those black hands belonged to Mayor Nagin. Not even Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, son of New Orleans' last white mayor and brother of Louisiana senior Senator Mary Landrieu, could unseat Nagin. (Nagin won with 52.3 percent, to Landrieu's 47.7 percent, with the vote split largely along racial lines.) Statesmanship was sorely lacking in the mayoral race. Nagin and Landrieu pandered to the voters by supporting rebuilding in all areas (see definition of insanity) and lots of federal aid. Incredibly, Nagin campaigned on the claim that New Orleans could not afford to change course as rebuilding proceeded. Streets were still strewn with rusting, mud-covered cars and whole neighborhoods consist of homes that are empty shells. A shameless, but successful, use of the don't switch horses in midstream argument that often, but not always, makes some sense. Nagin voter Elliot Pernell "reasoned" as follows: "He's been through the experience already and won't make the same mistakes."

Naturally, Mayor Nagin saw opportunity and grabbed it. He praised President Bush for keeping his commitment to bring billions of dollars for levees, housing and incentives to the city; thanked Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, a political enemy, "for what she's getting ready to do"; and declared it "time for a real partnership" and "time for us to get together and rebuild this city."

God have mercy. New Orleans' next hurricane season begins on June 1.

Those who think (and not just pray and/or hope) that Mayor Nagin's second term will be a great success will not be reassured by the recent exchange of emails by Grant Holcomb and Greg Meffert. Nagin's Deputy Mayor.

It sure looks like the Nagin administration has learned only how to win re-election, not how to govern well.

Grant Holcomb is a an honor graduate of the United States Marine Corps Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare Defense School and a Marine who attained the rank of major and served as an operations officer during the first Gulf War. He earned a combat action ribbon conducting a minefield breach and watched a number of extremely brave men die in the process. He abhors needless death and has devoted his considerable technical skills toward dealing as efficiently as possible with disasters.

On June 8, 2004, Business Report posted an article titled "The missing link," about "something called 'total interoperability': a mythical state of affairs in which emergency responders and their bosses can communicate seamlessly among agencies in real time, which would allow them to share lifesaving information."

Mr. Holcomb figured prominently in the article.

The article reported that "[a]n unlikely group of civil servants in Baton Rouge [Louisiana] has discreetly grabbed a critical role on the cutting edge of the quest to achieve total interoperability" and '[i]n doing so, they may be rattling some huge players in the computer and radio industries."

The article continued:

"Baton Rouge officials will soon begin a test of software developed by Tulane University and private partner eXOS Services Inc. The software promises to achieve total interoperability- not with expensive new equipment, but with software that empowers existing radios, computers and databases.

"'It's been looked at by IBM and Raytheon, and they believe it works,' says Bob Keaton, former chief budget analyst for the state Senate and now a finance and economic development consultant. 'If it works, it will be an absolute world-class type breakthrough in an area where people at all levels of government and industry are striving to achieve it. We may be on the ground floor.'

"What does the software do? It's akin to expanding the Internet from two dimensions to three, connecting virtually any kind of communication device.

"Today, a fireman standing in front of a burning building doesn't typically have at his fingertips architectural plans of that structure or a list of the flammable materials within. A cop responding to a robbery in progress can't pull up live security camera footage from inside the bank on his laptop. The capability does exist for them to get that life-saving information, but it's either imprisoned in databases or the network simply can't handle the exchange of information."

Enter Mr. Holcomb.

"But now Grant Holcomb, a former U.S. Marine commander, and Tulane University have developed software that lets radios, computers, phones and databases communicate simultaneously over a shared network designed with open standards. That means the new network doesn't care what kind of operating software or system each device runs on. It can carry them all, and even lets authorities monitor usage and dole out bandwidth to the most critical situations."

A fantastic achievement.

"'This is so fundamental to what we do- supporting each other at the scene of an incident,' says Lt. Col. Joey Booth of the State Police. 'There are lots of hardware solutions out there, but now we're looking at a software solution.'"

So what did New Orleans under Mayor Nagin do?

"New Orleans pulled out of a federal grant that would have given that city a lead role in field testing Tulane's software late last year."

But others were not so blind: " East Baton Rouge Parish's Office of Emergency Preparedness quickly stepped in. Director JoAnne Moreau convinced her colleagues in seven other parishes to participate as well."

The article recognized Mr. Holcomb's critical contribution:

"The seeds of Baton Rouge's role in communications technology may have been planted a decade before the Sept. 11 attacks. As a U.S. Marine commander in the 1991 Gulf War, Holcomb's job was to monitor communications from sundown to sunrise. On many of those nights, Holcomb had to listen to troops die in the field. He believes many of them would have lived had they and their commanders been able to communicate and share all the information they had.

"'I realized we can't communicate,' Holcomb says.

"A former master instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and an honor graduate of the U.S. Marines Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare Defense School, Holcomb returned to the states and started trying to put together a software program to bridge the communications divide.

"Tulane University hired him to head up its biomedical informatics department, which envisions medical applications for the technology such as distance surgery and e-learning. Holcomb snagged several million dollars in grants, then created eXOS Services and pulled in several million in private investments from friends and family to finish developing the software in conjunction with Tulane. Today he is a consultant to Tulane and an executive and co-owner of eXOS Services.

Mr. Holcomb explained, or, as the article put it, "distill[ed] the fog of post-Sept. 11 realization" as follows:

"'Every single federal report since the first attacks on the twin towers in the early 90s, all the way up past 9/11, says that we can't communicate or share information. We've discovered the technical reasons: Pentium chips can't handle multiple tasks, the Windows operating system has no security and is too complex and vulnerable to viruses, databases are proprietary and can't share data, and push-to-talk radios only let one person talk at a time. Those things in concert make it impossible to communicate.

"What would happen if every state had different width railroad tracks? Or different sized light bulb sockets? So why then do we allow our first responder communications to be compromised by independent, proprietary products? We should have no more lousy push-to-talk radios, or dependency on bad computers that are plagued by viruses, or proprietary databases that imprison information."

So what happened?

"Originally, Tulane and eXOS Services were going to field test their software in New Orleans. But a day after Holcomb testified at the Legislature about the software's potential, the city unexpectedly decided to turn down its $7 million grant, telling the government that the work should have been put out for competitive bids.

"Holcomb says major market players such as Microsoft may have convinced city officials not to partner with Tulane because the software is not in Microsoft's best interests. Microsoft made headlines in 2002 when it donated $100 million in software to the city, and it works with New Orleans to test new software.

"Other major players who may be concerned about the technology include Motorola, which dominates push-to-talk radio sales to emergency response agencies, and Intel, which makes Pentium chips.

"'Every time I go to a meeting or to testify, the telecommunications community does something to try and block me,' Holcomb says.

"eXOS Services has teamed up with a corporate giant itself, though Holcomb says terms of the contract require that he not divulge the name.

"'I have a bigger gorilla- I'm with a multinational corporation that's larger than all of them combined, and they are a firm believer in open standards.'

"The field test of the software could have long-term implications for Baton Rouge and Louisiana, says Keaton.

"'If Louisiana can finesse this software and become the location, or a training center, then it's just one part of it- the rest is how do you develop an implementation plan, how do you get sheriff's offices to talk to city police and hospitals. We have to find something other than oil to be the next economy, and I have not seen it yet.'"

Grant Holcomb's Challenge

Set forth below is an email from Mr. Holcomb to New Orleans Deputy Mayor and CTO Greg Meffert.

"I would like to arrange a public debate between the two of us. I waited until after the Mayoral elections to eliminate one more of your excuses and false accusations.

"I want the largest possible public audience so I can state that your unethical and unprofessional conduct contributed to the loss of life during hurricane Katrina.

"I want to prove that you are an unqualified and incompetent appointed public official who has undermined public safety and national security through the serial abuse of authority.

"Regarding the $7 million U. S. Department of Justice public safety grant that you intentionally misdirected, my business relationships were disclosed in advance and [I] received a legal opinion authorizing me to proceed. This was done well before the U. S. Department of Justice received the City of New Orleans grant submission. I challenge you to fully disclose all of your business relationships as I have done.

"Regarding your recent statements to the press, you continue to assume everyone you talk to is stupid. You are claiming that I attempted to commit a fraudulent act against the U. S. Department of Justice, an organization comprised of lawyers who convict people of crimes for a living. Your claim also implies that every lawyer and public official I worked with along the way had a lesser legal authority than your associate Sherry Landry.

"Does the public know that your first act as an appointed public official was to give yourself and Sherry Landry a raise? At a salary of $150,000.00 per year the public should gain some meaningful benefit, like addressing issues of public safety.

"Does the public know that you have a liberal arts degree and do not have the engineering credentials to be the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of anything, particularly the City of New Orleans? Ordering Microsoft Software and Dell computers and hiring a third party to set up a web site does not make you 'technical,' nor should it cost the taxpayers so much a year.

"Does the public know that Sherry's legal opinion against me was rendered after multiple failed attempts by you to kill the $7 million public safety grant? Here is the chronology of events that I witnessed first hand:

1.) The U.S. Department of Justice awarded the City of New Orleans a federal grant based on my team's engineering research, efforts, experience, and expertise. The City of New Orleans staff wrote and submitted the grant based on our input. The grant would not have been awarded had Tulane University not invested nearly a million dollars in labor and research and development.

2.) All of my actions were conducted under the direction and authority of the City of New Orleans Director of Homeland Security and the Tulane University General Counsel. The relationship between the City of New Orleans and Tulane University was approved and was just as legal as the other 27 contractual relationships in place between the two organizations at that time.

3.) On the evening the Mayor announced the grant award, where the City had me demonstrate the same working technology to the press that I had demonstrated to your assistant 4 months earlier, you called the City's Director of Homeland Security and angrily complained how upset your business partners were about the grant announcement.

4.) Two weeks after the grant award announcement, during our first face-to-face meeting, you walked into the room in front of over a dozen witnesses and accused me of and I quote 'ABM Anything But Microsoft.' Instead of focusing on how to allow the region's first responders to communicate during a crisis, you focused the entire meeting on how you could direct the federal money through your business associations just to the City of New Orleans. You clearly stated that you did not want any of the surrounding Parishes to receive any of the grant money. Since you still had not read the grant request or response, you did not know that it was a U. S. DOJ requirement that the money must be used for improving regional communications.

5.) At first you attempted to delay the final grant acceptance paperwork by missing and postponing the meetings scheduled for the grant acceptance signing. The Director of Homeland Security had to embarrass Mayor Nagin into signing the documentation at a party literally minutes before the overnight shipping deadline. What leverage did you hold over Mayor Nagin that would make him turn down such a critical federal grant?

6.) Within days of our meeting, you or a member of your staff copied all of the emails belonging to the Director of Homeland Security into a public Internet folder. You or a member of your staff then contacted all of your business associates, directed them to the location of these emails, and then directed these businesses to write formal letters of complaint to Sherry Landry. They all complied with the request at the same time. Sherry confronted myself, my boss, and a member of Tulane's legal staff at a meeting she requested. Sherry accused us of numerous fraudulent acts. We were shown the complaints containing the original emails she claimed got onto the Internet accidentally. Any technically literate individual knows, and can easily prove in a courtroom, that this type of 'accident' is impossible. You are responsible for the email system for the City and you allowed information critical to national security to pass into the public domain. Why didn't you use any of this 'evidence' or complaint materials in your letter to the U. S. DOJ? Why wasn't I fired for wrongdoing? Why has this important evidence of wrongdoing on my part and Tulane University not been given to the press? You and Sherry did not act on this because you knew any investigation by the U. S. DOJ or the FBI would have surfaced your unethical and illegal conduct on this matter.

7.) You retained an engineering consulting company called BearingPoint to draft a statement that the technology my team had developed was not real or valid. I was read the statement produced by BearingPoint, which was given to Mayor Nagin. I went to BearingPoint's office and attempted to turn over a working solution for their evaluation. I was denied access to their office. The Director of Homeland Security put our solution through months of testing to ensure everything worked as advertised before the grant submission. If you had bothered to really check out my past (NASDAQ stock symbol TGCC) you would have determined that the basis of the technology was developed at a cost of over $20 million dollars when I was the CTO of this publicly traded company. A commercial version of the primary software had been sold for many years before I became a Tulane University faculty member. You did not release the BearingPoint statement to the U. S. DOJ because you knew a reasonable person could easily verify the reliable functioning of the technology.

8.) Your final attempt to kill the grant was a very subjective letter to the U. S. DOJ stating that my team and I at Tulane did not comply with City and State procurement regulations and there was a 'conflict of interest.' If you had wanted to, you could have just as easily argued in our favor. Again, as seen by your actions above, you were pursuing your own personal interests instead of the safety and security of the citizens of the region. Please explain how Tulane University, a not-for-profit institution and the largest employer in the region, is not the better business partner for the City than Dell Computer? Did you buy 3,000 or 4,000 Dell computers, I cannot recall the exact number? A Dell employee called my lead engineer asking for advice on the grant implementation and implied that they were taking over the grant. Why is it that you can select Dell computer, without following procurement regulations, yet my actions are illegal after following all local, state, and federal guidelines managed by multiple experienced staffers from both the City and Tulane?

9.) After you reminded the Tulane General Counsel that the University had 27 active contracts with the City of New Orleans, I was told by the Tulane administration that they would no longer pursue the grant or take legal action to stop you.

"Even an appointed public official must serve the interests of the community. Your actions reflect that you only serve your own interests.

"I am an honor graduate of the United States Marine Corps Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare Defense School. I am a combat veteran. I have a B.S. in Electrical Engineering. After attending the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, I taught Electrical Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy. I have over 25 years of experience behind my claim that the inability to communicate during a natural disaster or terrorist attack directly results in the unnecessary loss of life. The grant submission presented how vulnerable the citizens of Southeast Louisiana are during a disaster. You intentionally ignored this critical information.

"You abused your position and you ignored the safety of the citizens of the City of New Orleans. I personally think your negligence was criminal in nature because your actions were deliberate and intentional.

"I pray that Mayor Nagin is successful in rebuilding the City of New Orleans and protecting its citizens. His first act should be to fire you immediately and start a grand jury investigation."

The Deputy Mayor's Response

"Mr. Holcomb,

"I don't even understand most of this. I get the part about your negative attitude towards me, which is your right to feel that, and I obviously already know your now 3 year-old desire in still wanting to get a bunch of money on a grant we never were able to award to anyone. But I think its fair to say though that the time for any and all self-serving debates is over. We have a hurricane season starting in less than two weeks, it is time for all of us to stop debating and get to work."

Mr. Holcomb's Reply

"Mr. Meffert,

"You were not able to even keep the generator running at City Hall during hurricane Katrina, after having years of preparation and multiple near miss hurricanes.

"You broke into a local business after the hurricane to take 'needed' communications equipment because you were forced to react to a crisis instead of being prepared for it.

"There are 5,000 first responders across 300 local, state, and federal agencies in your region. What leadership and coordination actions did you take to ensure personnel, fuel, water, medical resources, and transportation were ready to protect lives? Every American knows the answer to that question.

"You took an awarded federal grant, which was to be used to purchase portable communication systems and an advanced proven network technology, and you redirected the money to your business associates. Now taxpayer money is buying the exact same technology that hurricane Katrina destroyed. Are the new radio towers magically wind proof?

"The U.S. DOJ has determined that the City of New Orleans is one of the most critical areas in the nation requiring greater security and better communications. A significant percentage of the nation's energy resources pass through your jurisdiction. If the Mississippi River is blocked in New Orleans it will cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars a day, potentially destroying our economy. What preparations, like rehearsals and inspections, have been conducted to ensure this does not happen?

"As the Deputy Mayor and CTO of the City of New Orleans, all of this falls under your responsibility. You have failed on every measure to deliver public safety and security. Now that there are billions of dollars of tax payer money involved for reconstruction you have suddenly become qualified for the job!

"You have proven that you cannot be entrusted with this much responsibility.

"There are 50,000 first responders agencies in the United States of America, and none of them can share information or communicate reliably during a crisis. This is because unqualified self-interested appointed public officials, like you, have the ability to redirect taxpayer dollars without any guidance or oversight.

"You can claim all you want that I am a disgruntled scientist with a vendetta against you. My wife is grateful, our home in New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina and we would have lost everything had I not moved to Colorado. However, the issue is not about me, it is about national security and public safety.

"Our nation's security and our citizen's public safety is vulnerable because of the lack of national communication standards and individuals like you acting unethically and irresponsibly.

"After my experience in Iraq I made a promise to use my skills to make our nation a safer place, particularly against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. I saw enough good men die first hand to know that there are certain issues that cannot be compromised. I never dreamed our nation's greatest vulnerability would be the result of greed, stupidity, and incompetence.

"You dismissed me as a nobody with a conflict of interest, you underestimate my technical understanding of the problem and how serious I take my work. I learned as a Marine Officer that honor, integrity, and duty are everything and necessary to keep our nation strong. I guess that makes me an extremist so be it.

"You need to resign or be fired. It is the only correct and appropriate course of action. You have betrayed the public trust and you are not qualified to hold your current position."

If New Orleans is to recover and to move forward, if the billions of dollars given and to be given to New Orleans are not to be wasted, then the politics of race and pandering to unreasonable expectations must be eschewed and the general welfare must be promoted instead.

If Mayor Nagin is ever going to deserve re-election, he must put aside Lousiana politics and business as usual, listen to Mr. Holcomb and replace Deputy Mayor Meffert, an egregious misfit for his critical position, with a qualified person and deal realistically with the dangers posed by a port city situated mostly below sea level instead of pretending that the realities of meteorology and geography can be ignored indefinitely.

© Michael Gaynor

Comments feature added August 14, 2011
 

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Michael Gaynor

Michael J. Gaynor has been practicing law in New York since 1973. A former partner at Fulton, Duncombe & Rowe and Gaynor & Bass, he is a solo practitioner admitted to practice in New York state and federal courts and an Association of the Bar of the City of New York member... (more)

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