A Cantrell administration official pointed to internal ethical issues with the ‘smart cities’ project days before the potential contractor was dropped

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Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s controversial “smart cities” project collapsed in April as the New Orleans City Council stepped up its investigation into allegations of contract fixing. In the aftermath, the Cantrell administration blamed the “litigious atmosphere” created by the board and continued to claim that the bid-rigging allegations were completely unfounded.

However, new documents show that a week before the project collapsed, the city’s purchasing manager, Julien Meyer, wrote a letter to the city’s favored contractors saying the city had received new information that “raises doubts about the validity” of their proposal and warrants a reconsideration of the city’s position on the bid-rigging allegations.

The city’s chosen contractor – the Smart+Connected NOLA business consortium – has announced that it will abandon the project within a direct answer to Meyer’s letter.

The letter raises some of the same concerns that are at the heart of the council’s investigation – that a “pro bono consultant” who helped the Cantrell administration launch the global smart cities project, called Ignite Cities, had a financial interest to direct the contract to its business partners in Smart+Connected NOLA.

Meyer’s April 21 letter, which was also sent to Cantrell’s chief of staff, asked only one question: “Do you confirm that Ignite Cities has a business relationship with a member of Smart+Connected NOLA?”

Instead of answering the question, the Consortium replied to the email April 25 announcing that he was abandoning the project.

Cantrell continues to deny allegations despite new information

Following the consortium’s announcement, and despite the new evidence, the Cantrell administration continued to deny the council’s allegations and investigation.

A Cantrell spokesperson told the Times-Picayune that “We are deeply disappointed with SCNOLA’s decision to withdraw from the review. Given the controversial atmosphere that has been created around the issue, this is hardly a surprise. It is a loss for the children who deserved better than us as leaders of their city.

On April 26, Cantrell issued a open letter to the council calling the investigation a “show” and that the “disturbing rhetoric” was intended to “attack” and “hinder my administration”.

On April 27, an official from the Cantrell administration who played a leading role in the development of the smart cities project – the director of the Mayor’s office of public services Jonathan Rhodes – appeared before the council to answer questions under oath in response to a council subpoena. Rhodes became the focus of the investigation after it was revealed that he had co-founded a side business with another city employee and that the company had worked alongside many members of the Smart + Connected NOLA consortium on a separate project in Los Angeles.

Rhodes, under oath, told the board that the idea that Ignite Cities had a conflict of interest in advising the city due to its business relationship with potential bidders was “unwarranted allegations.” Rhodes received a copy of Meyer’s April 21 email, which explained that the procurement office had new evidence to support these allegations.

Rhodes and other Cantrell administration officials never mentioned, despite numerous inquiries from board members and the media, that he had new evidence of a financial relationship between Ignite Cities and Smart+. ConnectedNOLA. In fact, he fought to keep some of that evidence out of public view.

Meyer’s letter was released late last week following subpoenas the city council issued to five Cantrell administration officials as part of its smart city investigation. This month, the administration sued the board in an effort to block one of those five subpoenas, issued to Cantrell’s chief of staff, Clifton Davis. Davis received a copy of Meyer’s April 21 letter.

When an Orleans parish judge ruled in favor of the council last week, the administration announced its intention to appeal the decision. But then, in a somewhat surprising move, the Cantrell administration handed over the documents to the board on Friday evening. They were first published by WGNO.

Meyer’s April 21 letter was included in the response to Davis’ subpoena — the only subpoena the administration has tried to block in court. Although Rhodes was also copied from Meyer’s email, it was not included in his response to the subpoena. Rhodes’ subpoena was issued almost a month earlier than the other four subpoenas, and the original due date for that subpoena was three days before Meyer sent his e- mail.

The Cantrell administration did not respond to requests for comment. Neither Ignite Cities nor member companies of the Smart+Connected NOLA consortium.

‘On information and belief, IGNITE has no economic interest’

The city has known about the contract-rigging allegations for nearly a year.

About a month after the city selected Smart+Connected NOLA as the highest-rated bidder for the project, a competing bidder — Cox Communications — filed a formal protest claiming the public procurement process had been corrupt. The protest alleged that the city conspired with Ignite Cities to direct the procurement process to a shortlisted winner.

The allegations focused on Ignite Cities’ role as a pro bono consultant to the city that helped develop and shape the smart cities project and public offering. Emails included in the protest showed that Rhodes had asked Ignite Cities for input on a draft version of one of the public bidding documents, and that he had sent Ignite Cities a final version of the documents almost three weeks before its official publication.

Since then, other emails released as part of the council’s investigation revealed that Ignite Cities had a close relationship with city officials and played an ongoing role in the development of the project. And they say the company was primarily working on behalf of its business partners, rather than acting as an impartial consultant to the city.

Cox’s protest called into question the propriety of that relationship. He pointed to earlier press releases in which Ignite Cities announced a formal partnership with the two main consortium members – wireless giant Qualcomm and investment firm JLC Infrastructure.

According to a 2020 Qualcomm Press Release in announcing the partnership, the three companies intended to work together to develop “smart and connected” technology for businesses and local communities. Qualcomm would act as the technology partner and JLC would provide the capital. Ignite Cities would “provide expertise in building municipal partnerships and successfully solving complex urban issues.”

Cox argued that this is precisely what happened in New Orleans.

“Perhaps this explains why IGNITE offers to help cities on a ‘pro bono’ basis. Its purpose, of course, is to make the collaboration a “commercial success” by giving its partners a competitive advantage in securing government contracts.

The city dismissed Cox’s claims in December for two main reasons. First, officials said Ignite Cities did not have a contract with the city, meaning there could be no official conflict of interest. Second, they said the city was unaware of any financial interest Ignite Cities had in the Smart+Connected NOLA consortium.

“On Information and Belief, IGNITE has no economic interest in the RFP,” said a response prepared by Rhodes.

Both of these claims, however, appear to be contradicted in the new Davis subpoena documents. First, it turns out that contrary to the city’s repeated claims, Cantrell has in fact signed a contract with Ignite Cities. Councilwoman Helena Moreno previously revealed that there is a draft memorandum of understanding, or memorandum of understanding, for Ignite Cities to serve as a city consultant on smart city projects.

But like The Times-Picayune reported last week, Davis’ emails revealed that Cantrell had in fact signed the memorandum of understanding. The city did not explain to the newspaper why it had previously denied the existence of a contract.

The city’s other justification—that it was unaware of any financial interest of Ignite Cities in the project—was questionable from the start. The consultant’s business partnerships with JLC and Qualcomm have been made public online. Ignite Cities even emailed the city directly a letter in 2019 describing the new partnership with JLC. And the city has never been able to fully explain why Ignite Cities, a for-profit company, was working so much for free on a project in which it had no financial stake.

But in Meyer’s April letter, he said the city had become more skeptical of the situation based “on information received by city officials on Monday, April 18, 2022, during a meeting with representatives of Smart+Connected NOLA”.

It does not say what the information is and the city did not respond to questions from The Lens. But Meyer wrote that it was enough to “warrant” a fresh look at Cox’s protest and the information Smart+Connected NOLA provided to the city.

The letter says the new information “raises doubts about the validity of the proposal submitted by Smart+Connected NOLA.” Along with the letter, Meyer sent an affidavit submitted by the consortium stating that they had no conflict of interest in submitting their proposal. Meyer also sent and highlighted the “non-solicitation” provision of the original public tender document, which prohibits potential bidders from paying a company to help them win the public contract.

But despite the new information, the Cantrell administration continued to view the allegations as totally unwarranted political attacks.

The council’s investigation is still ongoing, as is a separate investigation by the New Orleans Inspector General’s Office, which seized computers and electronic devices from several administration officials last month.

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