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NOLA to Hire Outside Investigator to Review Smart City Plan

The New Orleans City Council voted to hire an outside investigator for its inquiry into Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s “smart city” plan to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Cantrell called the investigation a “spectacle.”

(TNS) — Help wanted: a gumshoe to scour documents and question witnesses about New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell's doomed "smart city" contract. Qualifications: experience with legal proceedings and the savvy to navigate a political hornet's nest.

The City Council voted Thursday to hire an outside investigator to oversee its burgeoning inquiry into Cantrell's smart city plan, which collapsed last month when a private consortium chosen by the administration exited contract talks amid bid-rigging accusations. The plan called for internet-enabled light poles, more public WiFi and a "city-directed" fiber-optic cable network, although it was criticized as lacking details about its price and tangible benefits.

Last week, the council on its own handled the public questioning of Jonathan Rhodes, director of the mayor's office of utilities and a key player in developing the April 2021 solicitation for the project. But with more subpoenas pending — and a growing sense among council members that there is meat on the bones to the controversy — the council wants professional help.

Conflict Suspected

Rhodes' April 27 grilling was the first time in 34 years that a City Hall official has faced formal questioning under the council's rarely used investigative authority. Council members say they're worried that Rhodes or other officials tried to steer a 15-year, multimillion-dollar deal to the Smart+Connected NOLA consortium, which included the telecom giant Qualcomm.

They're also worried that Rhodes and a Cantrell administration IT employee had a particular conflict of interest, because the two were advising Qualcomm on a similar smart city project in Los Angeles and wanted investors for an outside broadband business of their own.

Cantrell denies the bid-rigging assertions and calls the council investigation a "spectacle." She said City Hall's goal with the project was to expand internet access in underserved Black neighborhoods.

Lengthy Process

With the council's unanimous vote Thursday, its chief of staff will request applications for the investigator job. The council also approved a measure setting ground rules for what looks to be a lengthy process.

It's the second recent instance of the council finding a hired gun for a showdown with Cantrell. On April 7, the council hired two outside law firms, Barrasso Usdin Kupperman Freeman & Sarver and Justin Schmidt LLC, at a total cost of $200,000 to argue against the mayor's office in litigation over the Wisner Donation.

Nominally, the smart city investigator will have 45 days to produce a final report. However, the council could extend that deadline indefinitely.

Contempt Threatened

The council did not set a pay rate for the investigator, nor did it specifically require the person to be a lawyer. But Thursday's motion does suggest that the investigator should be able to read through reams of records, take sworn statements and issue a final report — legalistic tasks that typically don't come cheap.

While the investigation proceeds, hearings will be conducted in public and witnesses will take an oath. Refusing to answer questions may be deemed contempt of council, a misdemeanor, unless witnesses invoke their right against self-incrimination under the U.S. Constitution, according to the procedures.

Declining to answer questions could serve as grounds for the council to fire municipal employees who don't have civil service protection. Under the city charter, the council may do so by majority vote after a hearing.

(c)2022 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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