Fox 8 sues New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, executive director for public records

Published: Aug. 1, 2022 at 5:34 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Fox 8 has filed a lawsuit against the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board and its Executive Director Ghassan Korban.

The lawsuit comes after the board refused to provide several public records and stopped responding to our requests for updates.

For months, Fox 8 has been asking for several public records. The Sewerage and Water Board often pushed back the deadlines and stopped responding to inquiries about when those requests would be fulfilled.

Fox 8 attorney Scott Sternberg said he’s unsure why the agency hasn’t responded to the requests.

“But when you inquire as many times as we asked, and then send a demand letter on July 15 ... We’re now at the end of July, beginning of August, and we still haven’t even heard a peep,” said Sternberg.

The requests revolve around Fox 8′s series of “Drained” investigations. Those investigations detail unpaid claims and settlements owed by the Sewerage and Water Board. Fox 8 had additional questions about whether any claims are paid, and how the board decides which to pay.

“If somebody came to you or me and asked me, ‘How much did you pay for your car note last month?’ I could get you that information in about 15 minutes,” Sternberg said. “So, if we asked the Sewerage and Water Board, ‘How much did you pay in settlement of this lawsuit?’ that shouldn’t be a hard record for them to locate. They should have produced it within three days when we requested it, or really immediately. Because the law requires them to produce the record immediately, if it’s readily available.”

Sewerage and Water Board documents show the agency owes nearly $19 million in unpaid judgments and settlements. Fox 8′s prior investigations showed the agency was ordered by judges to pay the money after damaging peoples’ homes and even causing broken bones.

Fox 8 spoke to people who have been waiting years, some even decades, for payment.

That included Brenda Lackings. Her daycare on Claiborne Avenue was damaged by a drainage construction project that started in 2010.

“I had been knocked from a chair using the computer. Children in my center will literally shaking. No matter what time of day it was,” said Lackings.

A few doors down, Dorothy White’s home, which her late husband renovated, also was damaged.

“And it shakes, everything it was cracking. There were things falling off the walls and everything. So, it made me feel really bad, because he had worked so hard to try and get it like I wanted it.”

A judge awarded White $94,000 to fix the damage the five-year project caused. White has yet to receive a dime.

Arnaud and Pamela Wauters also are waiting for money they’re owed from the board.

Pamela broke her foot after accidentally stepping into a Sewerage and Water Board drain that was missing its cover in 2002.

The couple sued to cover medical expenses. In 2007, the Sewerage and Water Board promised to pay them $25,000. But 15 years later, they haven’t seen any of that money.

At one point, Pamela reached out to Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who is the president of the Sewerage and Water Board.

“She called me, when she received my letter, and told me how sorry she felt about my case. … She told me that she was going to see what you could do,” said Pamela.

But weeks later, Cantrell sent a letter telling Pamela to speak to the Sewerage and Water Board and assuring her someone from their office would be in contact.

That never happened.

Fox 8 also has had trouble getting the Sewerage and Water Board to respond.

The board has delayed or missed deadlines for six open requests. The first was filed in March 2022.

Sternberg says the public records law is clear.

“It’s commonplace for public bodies to ask for more time to produce the record,” he said. “And there’s a provision in the law that’s been there since 2013, that says that they can provide us an estimate of the time reasonably necessary to produce the record. And that’s what they did for (at least one of these requests) and then they missed that deadline, too.

“If they had said, ‘WVUE, we’ll have these records to you on Aug, 2,’ we wouldn’t have filed this lawsuit.”

In the middle of July, Fox 8′s attorneys sent the Sewerage and Water Board’s attorney a letter calling for the board to immediately release the documents. That letter received no response.

“It was almost three weeks ago that we sent that letter,” Sternberg said. “And they got it. Not only did they get it, but it was on the news that night. So if they didn’t see that we were serious about getting these records of taxpayer dollars being spent, then it’s not like we didn’t try.”

Now, Fox 8 has sued, hoping to get those records. Our attorney accuses the board of using stonewalling tactics while refusing to provide even a slight excuse for refusing to produce the documents. The lawsuit asks the court to direct the board to release the documents that the public has a right to see.

The lawsuit was filed late Monday afternoon in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. It was allotted to Judge Ellen Hazeur. It’s unclear when the first hearing will take place.

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