The Hard Rock Hotel collapse site on Oct. 19, 2019 as workers in a basket prepare for a planned implosion of the unsteady cranes. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and her associated political action committee, Action New Orleans, have collected at least $69,838 in political contributions from the partners of 1031 Canal Development LLC — the group behind the Hard Rock Hotel. The hotel was still under construction on Oct. 12 when it collapsed, killing three workers and injuring dozens more. 

Almost all of those contributions were made since late 2016 and were routed through various companies controlled by 1031 Canal Development partners. 

Some of the money came from companies controlled by Mohan Kailas — the lead developer on the project. Some came from Citadel Builders, the project’s general contractor, and its president, Denzel Clark. Money was also contributed by All Star Electric, a contractor on the project, and its CEO Todd Trosclair, who is a partner in 1031 Canal Development.

Exactly one month after the collapse, Trosclair donated event space and catering for a fundraising event hosted by the Action New Orleans PAC. And one of his companies, Malone All Star JV LLC, donated $7,500 to Action New Orleans on the same day. 

An additional $6,000 was donated by Kailas’ daughter-in-law and Regional Mechanical Services, a contractor on the project. The Lens also identified $23,400 donated to former and current City Council members Stacy Head, Jared Brossett, Jason Williams, Kristin Palmer, Nadine Ramsey and Jay Banks.

“To be clear: any campaign contributions made — by anyone connected to the developer or to their related companies — have had no bearing whatsoever on any decisions made by this administration concerning the Hard Rock project or the collapse,” said an emailed statement from Cantrell’s communication director, Beau Tidwell. “The entities referenced here have donated widely to a range of candidates and organizations. Those contributions have categorically not impacted policy around the site, the project development, or the collapse response.”

Among the companies and individuals associated with the Hard Rock that donated to Cantrell, The Lens could not identify campaign finance reports showing they donated to Cantrell’s major opponents in the 2017 mayoral election. 

The Lens contacted 1031 Canal and the partners in the project. None responded to requests for comment on this story. 

“Contributions to Mayor Cantrell’s campaign and Action New Orleans span every major American industry, including real estate and construction, and she has been deeply involved in the response to this crisis, working with the victims’ families and other stakeholders to find consensus on a plan for implosion, and to recover remains,” said a statement from Kristine Breithaupt, communications director for Action New Orleans. 

Mirya Holman, a political science professor at Tulane University, argued that political contributions can have an effect on public policy, even if it is subtle.

“It’s important to think about what people think they’re going to get with a donation,” Holman told The Lens. “Because most of the time, it’s not a quid pro quo situation. They’re not donating to get permits passed. What they’re paying for is access and the ability to be in the same room as people who are making political decisions.”

She said that while relationships between government officials and donors may be informal, they can play a significant role in the creation of public policy. Holman also noted that financial support for the Cantrell administration — and other city officials — isn’t just coming from 1031 Canal Development, but from a litany of developers and contractors who work on similar large downtown projects.

“Relatively large scale developers are giving a lot of money,” Holman said. “People that are doing these big hotel developments, big office developments, these big mixed-use developments in the CBD where there’s apartments upstairs and retail downstairs; those types of things, that’s what [Cantrell] wants, that’s where she wants development to happen in New Orleans.”

The city’s response to the collapse has come under renewed criticism since last week, when a tarp that was covering the remains of one of the bodies fell down, exposing the corpse to public view. 

Citizens marched on City Hall, demanding accountability for those responsible and a public hearing to clarify key facts that the Cantrell administration has yet to disclose. 

For her part, Cantrell has repeatedly said that recovering the bodies and demolishing the building quickly and safely are her priorities. Earlier this month, she applauded the most recent plan to implode the building, rather than undergoing a slow, painstaking conventional demolition, saying an implosion was the best option to protect demolition workers. 

And following a Monday radio appearance by an attorney representing the development team, who insisted that the owners were not at fault for the collapse, Cantrell on Tuesday emphasized that she believes 1031 Canal is responsible for the site

“The sole responsibility of this project, of its construction, is the ownership of the site, and that is 1031 Canal,” Cantrell said, according to a report by WWL-TV.

At the same time, Cantrell and her administration have resisted calls for public hearings by the New Orleans City Council, saying the council has “no role” in an investigation of the collapse or the city’s response to it as multiple other investigations are ongoing. 

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the cause. And on Tuesday, the New Orleans Office of Inspector General confirmed that the collapse is part of an ongoing local, state and federal corruption investigation into the city’s Department of Safety and Permits. That investigation has resulted in one criminal conviction — of a building inspector who admited to taking and paying bribes — though that conviction was not related to the Hard Rock. 

In a Tuesday letter posted to Twitter, the Office of Inspector General asked the City Council not to continue with its own investigation, saying it could interfere with the ongoing probe.

Cantrell continued to oppose the council members’ move on Tuesday.

“As has been stated to you in person, all applicable parties are very close to completing various, necessary legal agreements within the next week to allow the full demolition process to begin by the following week,” Cantrell said in a written statement on Tuesday evening. “A public examination of sensitive private contracts between the owner, its insurance company, the demolition company, its insurers and the like, prior to the finalization of these agreements, may cause some of the necessary parties to not participate in this complex recovery and demolition project. In fact, one of the insurers may have withdrawn due to the negative publicity surrounding a councilmember’s comments last week.”

The New Orleans City Charter, however, explicitly allows for council investigations. On Wednesday, the council is scheduled to hold a special meeting to vote on a motion to create the City Council Canal Street Collapse Special Committee. 

There are also concerns about the administration’s acquiescence to the developers’ plan to demolish three historic buildings adjacent to the Hard Rock site in order to take down the partially collapsed building. When the developers were planning an incremental demolition, the Cantrell administration said the buildings would have to come down to create a clear line of site to the Hard Rock, according to The Times-Picayune/Advocate.

But later, when the plan changed to an implosion, Fire Department Superintendent Timothy McConnell claimed that they had to come down due to their proximity to the implosion site, and the possibility that their accidental destruction could cause a chain reaction with other buildings in the area. 

The three adjacent buildings are owned by partners of 1031 Canal Development, and Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, among others, has expressed concerns that the developers are trying to use the opportunity to demolish historic buildings, something that is normally difficult to get permits for, as a land grab. The demolitions would leave the developers with a larger plot of valuable downtown land to either redevelop or sell off.

“We don’t have enough information about it, but it sounded like Katrina disaster capitalism to us,” said Ursula Price, executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “It just feels like there’s special consideration because large corporations are involved.”

Price said she is especially concerned with the city’s response to the deportation of Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma, an 18-year New Orleans resident and one of the workers at the Hard Rock site during the collapse. Palma spoke out publicly about construction issues and joined a lawsuit against the developers. But two days after the collapse, he was arrested by Border Patrol agents after being approached by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents checking for his fishing license.

By the time he was deported to Honduras, Palma had become a witness for federal investigators looking into the collapse. Price believes the Cantrell administration should have done more to stop the deportation, and should now be fighting to bring back a witness and victim to the collapse.

“The city should have played a greater role, and still has a role to play, in dealing with the deportation of a key witness,” she said. “They never really used their power there.”

She said that in the past, the administration has supported the Workers’ Center in their attempts to stop deportations.

“I have my own understanding of how politics in New Orleans works,” she said. “And we’re very much a patronage culture. You always honor your patrons in New Orleans politics, especially financial patrons. What is remarkable to me is that community organizations like mine really went in on supporting LaToya. And the support we receive has been disproportionate to some other contributors.”

Tidwell declined to comment on Palma’s deportation.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...