In April 2021, the city put out a request for proposals (RFP) for an ambitious project that aimed to provide free wireless internet access to lower-income New Orleans residents and integrate the city’s streetlights, sensors, networks and data analytics platforms.

The scope of what the latter part of the proposal included was not clear. But nevertheless, a contract was awarded to a consortium called Smart+Connected NOLA, led by wireless technology company Qualcomm.

The concept of “smart cities” is being pitched to cities worldwide and can signify a number of various improvements. But the idea generally involves the integration of data and technology into city government responsibilities such as law enforcement, infrastructure, trash collection, etc.

The deal with Smart+Connected NOLA came under scrutiny after Cox Communications, the company that came in second place in the bid procurement process, protested the awarding of the contract.

According to the OIG’s report, Cox’s protest letter included allegations that IGNITE Cities, which at the time of the proposal was a consultant with the city, also was consulting for Qualcomm and assisted in writing the consortium’s proposal. The OIG said the city allowed IGNITE to review and assist with the drafting of the RFP.

Two city officials in charge of the project — Director of the Mayor’s Office of Utilities Johnathan Rhodes and City IT staffer Christopher Wolff — also had a side company called Verge Internet. Verge provided consulting services to Qualcomm on a project in Los Angeles. Both Rhodes and Wolff were members of the selection committee that ultimately chose Smart+Connected NOLA.

“The purpose of ethics laws are to prevent impropriety, as well as the appearance of impropriety,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

The New Orleans City Council launched its own investigation around the same time Smart+Connected NOLA dropped out of the project in April 2022.

“While the winning vendor has now pulled out of the deal, our investigation will proceed to make sure all city employees conducted themselves appropriately,” Councilmember Helena Moreno said at the time.

The council also had requested the OIG conduct its own investigation.

Rhodes was questioned by city councilmembers, who had questions about whether Verge’s two-year relationship with Qualcomm gave the company the inside track on getting the smart city deal.

An attorney for Wolff told Fox 8 in a statement that his client was cleared by the Louisiana Board of Ethics and that Verge never had any financial interest in pursuing contracts with the city.

“I do believe it is of note that neither Wolff nor Verge Internet had any financial interest in any contract with either the City of New Orleans (as stated in the alleged violation of the Home Rule Charter),” attorney Michael Kennedy wrote. “When Wolff was providing technical information for Los Angeles, that was in response to a Los Angeles request for technical information, not a purchase contract vehicle.

“Verge never had any assets, any money, bank accounts, tax filings or other than a corp filing and a website. There was no money or quid pro quo in any form.”

The inspector general issued several recommendations, including training companies and individuals who volunteer their time to assist the city with solicitation reviews to receive the same state ethics training as public employees.

Moreno also issued a statement Wednesday, saying, “This Inspector General report confirms our concerns. Our investigation formed the basis for these troubling facts found by the OIG, which include accusations of violation of state criminal law, ethics violations and clear conflicts of interest. From the start, the scope of the Smart Cities multi-million dollar project was unclear. But what was clear is that some of the city employees in charge of bringing the project online were molding and steering the contract to benefit their connections. I’m glad the Council stepped up to do this inquiry, and I believe it saved millions of taxpayer dollars from being wasted.

“Lastly, we always said we would turn over our findings to criminal and investigative agencies who have specific powers to seize computers, phones and other materials. This Council has taken our oversight role seriously, and we’ve been undeterred by rhetoric or politics. Protecting the people’s money is our No. 1 concern and this report is a product of our efforts.”

Cantrell addressed the investigation and its results briefly Wednesday, saying the council investigation yielded no results and her administration has not had time to review the findings of the inspector general’s investigation.

Even though they point out potential violations of criminal laws, if the inspector general believed there was proof of a crime, they could have obtained an arrest warrant, and they didn’t do that,” Goyeneche said.

The report says the matter has been referred to Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams’ office.

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