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Through weeks of prepared statements, an interview and a public hearing, two New Orleans government employees involved in City Hall's failed “smart cities” project have downplayed their relationship with the companies that won the right to negotiate a 15-year broadband and infrastructure contract.

But Verge Internet, a private company founded by those employees, was once pitched to officials in Los Angeles as part of a “team of industry leaders” with Qualcomm and JLC Infrastructure on a similar plan to “bridge the digital divide” in that city, according to a newly obtained document.

That document, submitted to the city of Los Angeles last year, suggests that Jonathan Rhodes, the director of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office of utilities that sponsored the “smart cities” program, and Christopher Wolff, a city IT worker who helped choose the winning bidder, had a closer relationship with potential vendors than they had previously acknowledged.

Qualcomm and JLC pulled out of contract talks in New Orleans last month amid contract-steering accusations from a rival bidder, questions about their relationship with Rhodes and Wolff and a formal City Council investigation. While the controversial smart city project is dead for now, the council probe is only beginning to examine what went on behind the scenes.

A ‘team’ proposal

New Orleans released a request for proposals for its smart city project in April 2021. At around the same time, Los Angeles was beginning to pursue its own, similar program aimed at boosting internet access in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

While New Orleans wanted to ink a contract, Los Angeles was earlier in the process of weighing a potential program. In March 2021, it issued a request for information, which is a step cities sometimes take before launching a formal bid process and is typically a form of market research.

The California city said it wanted to create a list of solutions for different potential scenarios, which might range from tapping into existing fiber-optic and power lines to using a mix of solar power and cellular connections.

One of the responses it received was a two-page "narrative" document, which according to authorship metadata included in an electronic file was written by Christopher Wolff on May 10, 2021. Download Document Qualcomm / RFI Narrative 2021

The document spoke about Qualcomm, Verge Internet and JLC Infrastructure using high-speed wireless devices attached to the city’s existing streetlights to create a citywide network at a fraction of the cost of fiber-optic cables.

The network would “bridge the digital divide” by targeting historically Latino and Black areas like Boyle Heights and South Central.

Rhodes and Wolff had created Verge Internet as a Delaware company months before. In an interview and City Council testimony, Wolff and Rhodes said separately that they gave “pro bono” technical assistance to Qualcomm on the Los Angeles project, but their involvement stopped there. Wolff called the company a "hobby."

Yet the two-page document, which was obtained under a public records request to Los Angeles, identified Verge Internet as a member of a “team of industry leaders” with Qualcomm, JLC Infrastructure and other companies.

“The Qualcomm team has developed a plan to help Los Angeles recover, reimagine and rebuild a truly equitable, sustainable and connected city,” the document states. “Our team of industry leaders is comprised of Qualcomm, Cambium Networks, Verge Internet, Comptek, Black & Veatch (collectively, the ‘Technical Members’), and JLC Infrastructure (‘JLC’ or the ‘Equity Member’).”

Qualcomm and JLC didn’t respond to requests for comment. But the New Orleans consortium of which they were members has previously promised to cooperate with the City Council’s investigation of the failed deal. Council President Helena Moreno said Monday that she will press both companies for more information on the Los Angeles proposal.

In a statement Monday, a Mayor's Office spokesperson said that "to our knowledge" the document was submitted by Qualcomm, not by Wolff.

"Team simply referred to a group of organizations passionate about bridging the digital divide, coming together to help achieve that goal during the pandemic," said the spokesperson, Melissa Newell. "There was no business partnership or any legal or financial relationship between Verge and the other group members."

The document's timestamp indicates that it was created on a Monday during a workday, but Newell said that was not a sign of any wrongdoing by Wolff.

"Metadata in an open access and unsecured document is not conclusive," she said. "Nevertheless, if it was used by him at this day and time it was not done so on city time or equipment. Mr. Wolff was on documented leave."

The ‘cone of silence’

When Los Angeles' deadline arrived, New Orleans had just begun seeking proposals for its smart city project. The New Orleans solicitation was governed by what the city calls the “cone of silence.” Qualcomm, JLC and other vendors were not supposed to interact with city officials about the project before the bid award. If they did, they risked being disqualified.

While Rhodes’ one-man department was the official sponsor for New Orleans’ project, he said in testimony before the City Council last month that the IT department actually wrote the request for proposals.

On June 30, 2021, Wolff sat on the selection committee for the New Orleans solicitation. Along with other committee members, he gave the highest score to the Smart+Connected NOLA consortium comprised of Qualcomm, JLC and other companies.

Rhodes and Wolff have said that they never informed the city that they had an outside relationship with Qualcomm. There was no conflict of interest because they never received money, they've argued.

“We offered to provide assistance for no compensation whatsoever and no expectation of compensation,” Rhodes said during his sworn testimony last month.

The city stood by Rhodes and Wolff on Monday, insisting that they had no reason to recuse themselves from the procurement process because they had no financial arrangement with Qualcomm and JLC. Newell said the cone of silence was never broken because the officials didn't talk about the New Orleans project while providing advice on the Los Angeles pitch.

Yet to Moreno, the document submitted in Los Angeles was troubling. She said that it seemed to be directly at odds with Rhodes' sworn claim that Verge Internet provided pro bono help only.

“This, in my opinion, shows that Jonathan Rhodes lied about his involvement with this (request for information),” Moreno said. “They’re part of the team. It says it in the document, that they are part of the team that includes Qualcomm and JLC.”

Smart and connected… Los Angeles

Even before the existence of Verge Internet became public in New Orleans, the winning consortium’s proposal drew jeers from the second-place bidder, Cox Business.

In a series of protests beginning in late July 2021, Cox claimed that the city handed the right to negotiate a contract to the consortium while ignoring flaws in its proposal. Cox also claimed that the winning bidders had essentially written the solicitation.

Two months after Cox’s protest, in September 2021, Qualcomm and JLC Infrastructure submitted a presentation to Los Angeles on their smart city plan, according to another document received under a public records request. Download Document Smart and Connected LA presentation City of Los Angeles Public Wi-Fi & Connectivity Solutions RFI

That document was authored by a vice president at JLC Infrastructure who was also involved in the New Orleans project. The group had a name strikingly similar to the consortium in New Orleans: it was the Smart and Connected LA consortium.

While the September 2021 presentation boasted of securing a public-private partnership in New Orleans, it contained a notable change. It no longer listed Verge Internet as a consortium member.

Newell, the city spokesperson, said that was proof of Rhodes' and Wolff's claim that they had no ongoing relationship with Qualcomm and JLC.

"The fact that the Smart and Connected LA group continued to discuss the project without Verge illustrates Verge's position all along, which is that there was no arrangement or expectation of future arrangement between Verge and the group," she said.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Matt Sledge

Quelle/Source: Nola, 10.05.2022

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