While New Orleans residents and the families of those workers injured and killed in the Hard Rock Hotel collapse in October wait for the demolition of the structure to move forward, more attention regarding the cause of the collapse has been turned to the city's building department to question whether inspectors shirked their responsibility to ensure the integrity of the construction process.
The city suspended two of its inspectors last month amid allegations that they signed off on building inspections for several projects, including those for the Hard Rock, despite evidence that they did not actually visit the sites. The city could be held responsible, attorney Blaine LeCesne, a faculty member of Loyola University College of Law told WDSU News, if the missed inspections would have otherwise revealed a condition that either caused or contributed to the collapse; however, LeCesne said proving criminal liability would be very difficult.
Last week, the city demoted Zachary Smith, the person in charge of the city's Department of Safety and Permits, during the period that some inspectors did not complete their inspections properly, and replaced him with Assistant Attorney General Tammie Jackson. Smith will remain with the department, according to WDSU, because he is the only city employee certified to clear inspections. In the wake of the suspensions and recent retirements, the department is down to just four inspectors.
Inspectors Julie Tweeter and Eric Treadaway were suspended last month for 30 days without pay. A third inspector, Thomas Dwyer, who also allegedly signed off on some inspections without physically visiting the jobsites, recently retired. Building Official Larry Chan and Safety and Permits business development specialist Richella Maxwell were suspended in September in conjunction with a federal investigation into the illegal issuance of permits but both have also retired, according to WDSU.
Kevin Richardson, another New Orleans building inspector, pleaded guilty to accepting $65,000 in bribes in exchange for not reporting building violations and issuing false inspection reports. Richardson, who is scheduled for sentencing in May, could spend up to five years in prison.
There are also claims that Tweeter was not certified as a commercial inspector while she performed some inspections at the 18-story Hard Rock and that another Hard Rock inspector, Bryan Cowart, still has only a residential certification, which only allows him to inspect buildings with three stories or fewer.
Meanwhile, the demolition has been pushed back once again. Developers announced a plan to slowly dismantle the structure earlier this year, but that strategy could have left crews clearing the site into December. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said that crews would move forward with the implosion of the remaining structure this month but has since said the date could be pushed back to April as the city has not executed an agreement that would give the demolition contractor immunity from legal action should the implosion cause any damage.
In addition, Hard Rock International (HRI) has turned down the city's request to provide almost $2.5 million in financial assistance to help pay for collapse-related public safety expense, stating that this would "undermine" the city's plan to pursue reimbursement from insurers and the parties found to be at fault. Jon Lucas, HRI's chief operating officer, said the company would be open to contributing to a fund for local businesses impacted by the closures around the hotel site.
HRI also said that it plans on pursuing legal action for how the collapse has harmed its global reputation, despite it having nothing to do with the development or construction of the New Orleans property.