US: Louisiana: New Orleans: City Council expands pay-to-play investigation into Smart City WiFi plan
- Published: 29 April 2022
The New Orleans City Council Thursday has opened a formal investigation into Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s plan to provide free WiFi services in the city over concerns top members of her administration are personally benefiting from the plan.
The council approved the investigation Thursday on a five to zero vote. An initial hearing will be held next week.
The investigation stems from a subpoena the council issued for documents from the administration’s utility’s chief Jonathan Rhodes. On Monday the city released dozens of documents related to issue, some of which were heavily redacted.
In a statement on the release of the documents, Council President Helena Moreno bluntly said “there is concern about the potential of contract rigging in this case and, therefore, must get to the bottom of how this contract was awarded to determine if all parties were treated properly.”
“This is a very unfortunate day we are in that we even have to proceed in this manner. But what myself and other council members have looked at … unfortunately gave us no other course of action but to move down this front,” Council President Helena Moreno said Thursday prior to the vote.
Opening a formal inquiry could lead to more subpoenas, Moreno warned. “This does allow the council to seek further documents, records whatever through our subpoena power,” she said, adding that “We will be formally inviting the office of the inspector general to attend this hearing.”
Next week’s hearing and the broader inquiry are needed, Moreno said, to ensure “the contracts are really what's best for the people of this city not what's best for the people employed by this city.”
Wednesday evening the Times-Picayune reported Rhodes and Christopher Wolff, a top city internet technology official, had started a private, Delaware-based company called Verge Internet in 2020 which has business ties to Qualcomm. Qualcomm is also the contractor which won a $2 million contract to work on the Smart City initiative. Rhodes and Wolff were directly involved in the bid process.
Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell told the paper "As experts in the field with a mission to promote digital equity, Verge Internet was asked to provide pro bono technical assistance related to building highspeed wireless networks for Qualcomm’s digital equity proposal for the city of Los Angeles."
"There is not and has not been outside employment," he said. "Verge operates on a pro bono basis, does not have any employees, has never paid a salary, and does not receive revenue or compensation."
According to the Delaware Secretary of State’s website, the company was incorporated on August 13, 2020, using a third-party entity called A Registered Agent, Inc to register with the state. Using a third-party entity can help companies shield themselves from public scrutiny.
But Council Vice President JP Morrell told Gambit Thursday morning prior to the vote that documents released earlier this week under the subpoena “was truly disturbing, and upsetting,” adding that “not only are there concerns regarding conflicts of interest, there are contracts that were [started] immediately after the subpoena process started.
“There is a third-party company that no one's ever heard of called Frontera. That we didn't know existed, that on the 16th of April, the mayor, and Jonathan Rose issued a $2 million one-year contract to circumvent counsel oversight to begin the process of doing this infrastructure work,” Morrell said.
Morrell also indicated the council is concerned the city may have limited its response to the subpoena in a way that shielded other potentially damaging documents from being released.
“Upon review we figured out [that when] we asked for any communication with specific people, they only gave us the information between the [named] people themselves. So if we said for example, we want any communication with Jonathan Rhodes regarding the Smart City initiative, they gave us the emails Jonathan wrote emails between [himself] other named people, but not the emails that he would have had with anyone that we didn't already know existed. So we've already found based upon other information we've obtained, they've left out a significant number of emails,” Morrell said.
Autor(en)/Author(s): John R. Stanton
Quelle/Source: Gambit, 21.04.2022