Two years before New Orleans was inviting proposals for a multimillion-dollar “smart city” broadband project, Mayor LaToya Cantrell signed a formal memorandum of understanding to work with a consulting firm that had close ties with potential winning bidders.
The city has previously denied that Cantrell formalized a relationship with the consultancy, Ignite Cities, and did not provide the document via a public records request. But a series of hundreds of emails released Friday after a subpoena battle with the city council contradicts those claims.
Emails show Cantrell and Ignite Cities CEO George Burciaga signed the deal, which involved “pro bono consulting services”, in April 2019.
The hundreds of emails released on Friday come from Clifton Davis, Cantrell’s chief of staff, and Arthur Walton, his director of intergovernmental affairs.
The decision to release the documents suggests Cantrell may be walking away from a legal confrontation with the city council. But it could also fuel the council’s ongoing inquiry into ‘smart city’ provisioning, which aimed to create a ‘city-controlled’ broadband network but which collapsed amid allegations bid rigging.
A week and a half after a deadline set in a subpoena, Cantrell’s office released the emails. The May 31 deadline sparked a legal battle between the branches of government over their powers and on Thursday led to a unanimous council vote to scorn Cantrell’s two MPs, Davis and Walton.
Last month, Cantrell called the council’s official inquiry into the canceled smart city project a “show”. A spokesperson adopted a more neutral tone on Friday.
“The mayor’s office is complying with the city council’s investigation by releasing the documents it requested. In addition to the city council, these documents are also being released for public inspection,” spokesman Gregory Joseph said.
The first batch of documents produced on Friday includes only emails. In its subpoenas, the council also requested text messages, calendar entries, Zoom recordings and chat messages.
“We will comply with the council’s investigation,” Joseph said, when asked if the city would produce any other relevant documents that may exist. “We are cooperating fully, as we do with the OIG office.”
New Orleans Inspector General Ed Michel is also investigating the “smart city” procurement process.
In a statement Friday, city council president Helena Moreno, one of the main critics of the now-aborted deal, said council received the documents shortly before work was completed on Friday. She said they would be turned over to a third-party company “who will assist the council in carrying out a thorough investigation”.
Hundreds of emails
Once fully reviewed, the records could shed light on how two of Cantrell’s top lieutenants interacted with a consulting firm that pushed the project, as well as the consortium, known as Smart+Connected NOLA, who obtained the right to negotiate a contract with the city.
Partners in this consortium included telecommunications giant Qualcomm and investment firm JLC Infrastructure, co-founded by basketball great Magic Johnson. Ignite Cities had a business partnership with consortium members. In June 2020, JLC issued a press release touting its “initial capital of $75 million to invest in projects developed in conjunction with Qualcomm Technologies and IGNITE”.
But Ignite has also been in frequent contact with Cantrell administration officials in the months leading up to the April 2021 “smart city” tender.
The city has previously denied having entered into a formal agreement with Ignite Cities. In April, former city spokesman Beau Tidwell said there was “no such agreement” when asked if there were any written pacts between the city and Ignite.
A public records request that requested “any contract, cooperative effort agreement, memorandum of understanding, or other written agreement” between the city and Ignite Cities or Burciaga was closed in April after the city said it “has no documents responding” to the request.
Recently Revealed Memo
However, documents released on Friday show Cantrell and Burciaga, the CEO of Ignite Cities, signed the April 2019 memorandum of understanding for the consultancy to “provide pro bono consulting and advisory services.”
The memorandum states that Ignite Cities will provide the city with guidance on “aligning city initiatives with global partners to reframe smart city offerings that can scale, replicate, and become profitable for the city of New York.” Orleans”.
Burciaga did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
The relationship between Ignite, the consortium and the city was at the center of bid-rigging allegations made by Cox Business, which lost the “smart city” deal and later filed a formal protest.
Cox alleged there was a “genuine conflict of interest” because Ignite drafted the RFP at the same time it had a relationship with the successful bidders. The city dismissed the protest, saying Ignite had no contract with the city or a role in drafting the solicitation.
At the time, it had not yet emerged that two city officials involved in the solicitation process, Director of Utilities Jonathan Rhodes and IT staff Christopher Wolff, had a relationship with the Consortium through a company they controlled, named Verge Internet.
Late Friday, Cantrell administration spokesman Gregory Joseph said two years had passed between the signing of the memorandum and the release of the solicitation.
“When this MOU was signed in 2019, the landscape was much different from what we were dealing with with smart cities in the midst of a pandemic. That was before we saw that we needed a more diverse digital infrastructure,” Joseph said.
Joseph, who recently took over as the mayor’s communications director, said he could not explain why City Hall had previously denied a formal relationship existed.
$50 million investment pitch
In another email that was part of the document’s release on Friday, Rhodes provided insight into a January 5, 2021 critical meeting between Cantrell, Qualcomm and Ignite Cities.
“The quick release is that our partners will offer to invest up to $50 million in New Orleans technology infrastructure (public wifi, fiber, networks) to improve city services, save money for the city, increase revenue, foster equity and economic development, and make New Orleans a national smart city leader,” Rhodes wrote to Davis on January 4, 2021.
The city said it had no recording or notes of that meeting, which took place virtually.
However, Rhodes acknowledged that around the same time as the meeting, the city determined it needed to issue a request for proposals to move forward with a “smart city” project.
Rhodes denied that the right to negotiate a contract was directed at the consortium.
In June 2021, the Smart+Connected NOLA consortium won the right to negotiate a contract worth millions of dollars after a public tender. Cox then filed a formal protest against the city’s selection, alleging that the city deliberately steered the contract toward its preferred bidder.
Meanwhile, city council members raised questions about how the infrastructure and broadband internet project would work and how it would benefit New Orleans residents.
Then, in April, the city acknowledged that Rhodes and Wolff had pursued a similar “smart city” project in Los Angeles while working for the city. New Orleans and the private consortium called off their attempt to come to an agreement on a contract, and the project was cancelled.
The city council opened a formal inquiry into the procurement process in April. Later that month, Rhodes testified under oath about his role in developing the request for proposals for the smart city project.
Under subpoena, Rhodes and the city also turned over hundreds of pages of emails.
However, last week the city began pushing back against similar council subpoenas for Davis, Walton and a third official, former senior councilor Joshua Cox.
Editors Jeff Adelson, Joseph Cranney, Michael Finch II and Ben Myers contributed to this report.