Jan 132014

Owen Courreges

Howdy, folks! My name is Owen Courrèges and I’m here to regale you with my unique brand of stand-up comedy.

…So the City Attorney, the Head of the Taxi Bureau and the Chief of Police walk into a bar.  The Taxi Bureau Chief says: “Barkeep! Three beers for these dedicated mayoral appointees!”  Obligingly, the bartender slides three bottles of beer down the bar.

The Chief of Police promptly arrests the bartender for selling crack.  The next day, the Taxi Bureau Chief tells the media that the bartender was “a sleazy crack dealer what sold us crack.”

However – get this – the charges are dismissed two months later after the City Attorney is ordered to release evidence conclusively demonstrating that the bartender served alcohol, not crack.  The city considers the matter resolved since, you know, it’s not like they murdered a guy and burned his corpse in his car or something like that.

<Crickets chirping, owl noises in background.>

Come on, this is funny stuff!  Why aren’t you guys laughing?

I presume you’re not laughing because the whole “joke” describes a Kafkaesque tragedy that, just perhaps, you wouldn’t want to happen in New Orleans.  Perhaps you think that Mayor Landrieu should be ashamed that his hand-picked appointees would engage in this type of behavior.  Perhaps you would reconsider voting to reelect the man if he oversaw this type of corruption.

Well, dear readers, there is no need for confusion.  This is precisely the scenario that played out this past week.

It all started on October 23rd of last year.  Taxi Driver Emmanuel Esterlin was in his cab, parked illegally on Dauphine Street near the Hyatt French Quarter Hotel.  He was approached by Taxi Bureau investigator Ronnie Blake, who demanded that Esterlin exit his vehicle and face the wall while holding a pair of handcuffs.

Esterlin was not too happy about the prospect of being arrested for a parking violation.  In didn’t seem kosher, particularly given the fact that Blake wasn’t a cop.

Accordingly, Esterlin exited his vehicle but refused to be handcuffed by Blake.  Blake, undeterred, began reaching for Esterlin’s neck to restrain him, only to face resistance.   Esterlin’s affidavit explained the events that followed:

“Blake got very loud and tried to place my hands behind my back.  I kept him from placing my hands behind my back and at that point Blake pulled out pepper spray and sprayed me directly in my face and head.  After he sprayed me I swung at him with my eyes closed. I know I hit him but I don’t know where. The pepper spray brought me to my knees and Blake then put his knee in my back and handcuffed me.”

A security video from the Hyatt confirms Esterlin’s story, but you wouldn’t have know that before this past Monday.  Although the NOPD reviewed the footage immediately after the incident, they still arrested Esterlin for battery, not Blake.  And while the City Attorney’s Office came into possession of the Hyatt’s security footage shortly the incident, they maintained the charges against Esterlin until January 7th, a day after the lapse of Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens’ deadline for producing the footage.

In the interim, on November 5th, Taxi Bureau Chief Malachi Hull met with Esterlin. During the meeting, the recording of which was subsequently released to the Times-Picayune, Hull argued that the video from the Hyatt showed that Blake was blameless and was only defending himself after Esterlin, unprovoked, threw several punches.

In other words, Hull lied.  Presumably, he was hoping that Esterlin would plea out and the video from the Hyatt security cameras wouldn’t come to light.

But what’s worse is that the NOPD and the City Attorney’s Office reviewed the video and yet still pursued charges against Esterlin for over two months.  They only relented after Judge Sens ordered the release of the video, as though they were – like Hull – hoping against hope that they could keep the whole matter under wraps.

Esterlin’s attorney, Tom Shlosman, appears to agree: “The city has had this video in its possession at a minimum of 2 months and there should be an investigation going on and if there’s not, I’d like to know why.”

So who do we blame for all of this?  All of these men work for one city official:  Mayor Mitch Landrieu.  Landrieu appointed these people.  Landrieu is where the buck stops.  Landrieu is indisputably the man we should be holding responsible for this entire scandal.

Even those of you who are insufferable Landrieu sycophants will have to concede that hiring Hull as director of the Taxi Bureau was an obvious blunder.  Hull arrived from Atlanta, where he was also director of the Taxi Bureau, with more than a whiff of scandal.  In 2010, a year before Hull came to New Orleans, the City of Atlanta paid $425,000 to settle a lawsuit from taxi drivers alleging that his investigators would pull their permits and inspection stickers and then turn around and cite the drivers for operating without them.  The lawsuit put the lion’s share of the blame on Hull’s shoulders.

However, this appears to be how Landrieu operates, directing his appointees to use their offices to zealously seek revenue, and then providing virtually no oversight.  Responsibility is dodged.  In this sense, Hull’s scam in Atlanta probably wasn’t even regarded as a black spot on his resume – it was a qualification.

With Landrieu now seeking reelection, he needs to be repeatedly confronted with this scandal.  Landrieu needs to be reminded that the only joke here is the quality of his administration.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  7 Responses to “Owen Courreges: The taxicab bureau’s comedy of errors”

  1. Well said, Owen. It’s also a good time to look at the oversight angle of the new Sound Enforcement Office. Do we want to expand the number of residents subject to this type of treatment, or can we design something more accountable?

  2. This does call into question the hiring practices of the administration. The LENS or Zurik should look into how on earth someone like HULL could be hired with such a serious past lawsuit on his shoulders. Frankly, it looks like Landrieu’s administration might incur one as well.

    • Moses,

      The real shocker is how not one but *three* Landrieu appointees made this incident possible.

      First you have Chief Serpas — the NOPD reviewed the tape and arrested Esterlin even though the evidence clearly showed that he, not Blake, was the victim.

      Then you have Hull at the Taxi Bureau, who not only allowed a guy like Blake to have handcuffs and pepper spray, but lied for Blake by misrepresenting the contents of the video.

      Finally you have Sharonda Williams, the City Attorney, who sat on the tape for two months, refusing to drop the charges until the deadline for releasing the video had lapsed.

      I know the Times-Picayune is hammering hard on this already (especially Richard Webster), and I credit their reporting with providing the factual background for this piece. I just hope everyone keeps the heat up, because this was a major incident.

  3. Did anything more happen to Wilton Joiner, the taxicab bureau employee who assaulted a tour guide in the Quarter while Malachi Hull watched? Google is only giving me the articles about his suspension over a month ago.

    • Drainage,

      I haven’t heard anything in a while either. The last I heard he was charged with simple battery, so I’m assuming he’ll plead out eventually.

  4. Uber is a wonderfu app other cities use to work around the failings of the taxi monopolies. I know Mayor Landrieu is against it, because he wants to mend ways with the taxi drivers, but are any other mayorial candidates in favor of allowing it in New Orleans? Does anyone in the media know?

  5. Why isn’t there a legal fund, where we collectively, with laser precision, target the unlawfulness of one corrupt individual at a time….or at least a fund that follows up and makes the city do it’s job at self regulating.

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