Councilwoman Helena Moreno at a December 2019 City Council meeting (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

New Orleans City Councilwoman Helena Moreno has sent a subpoena to a senior member of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration on Monday demanding he hand over a wide array of documents and appear before the council for questioning related to a potential multimillion-dollar “smart cities” project and contract-fixing allegations regarding a Chicago-based consultant called Ignite Cities.

Moreno sent the subpoena out for service to Jonathan Rhodes, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Utilities, on Monday. It orders him to hand over the documents by April 18, and then appear before the council on April 27 to answer questions under oath. 

“I sent this subpoena on behalf of myself and other council members who feel that we have been purposely kept in the dark and haven’t received truthful dialogue around the smart cities/public WiFi proposal,” Moreno told The Lens in a statement.

Moreno has previously complained about the lack of public information and the administration’s refusal to share details about the project — a sprawling plan that includes creating a “city-directed” but privately run internet service to compete with existing internet providers like Cox Communications and AT&T. The project would also install thousands of “smart” devices throughout the city to collect data that the city could use to improve services and sell to private companies.

Moreno said it’s still unclear how much the city will have to pay over time for the infrastructure investments promised by Smart+Connected NOLA — the winning bidder for the contract — or how the city will protect residents’ privacy rights against the project’s massive increase in public data collection and surveillance.

“I personally have been requesting additional information since November publicly and privately,” Moreno said. “I have not received any information regarding payments nor privacy protections. A deal of this magnitude should be fully transparent and there should be significant accountability measures.”

And although the plan has been sold as “WiFi for All” and a way to close the city’s digital divide, it’s still unclear exactly how the plan will actually help get internet access to those who can’t currently afford a home subscription.

The subpoena also comes days after Ignite Cities became embroiled in another controversy in Chicago that sheds new light onto the contract-fixing allegations in New Orleans, and pokes big a hole in the Cantrell administration’s central justification for dismissing those allegations. 

“It once again raises the question as to whether the city partnered with a consulting group to rig the contract to go to certain investors,” Moreno said. 

Cantrell has lately been trying to win over the City Council on the project. As pitched by Smart+Connected NOLA, the proposal originally called for a multi-year agreement with the city. That would require council approval. 

Early this month, Cantrell held three events with NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson — whose investment firm, JLC infrastructure, is one of the leading partners on the project — to ask the public and council to get behind the project, despite the missing key details and despite the fact that a draft contract has never been released to the public. 

“There’s no magic without the City Council,” Johnson said during a press conference.

But now, it appears that the Cantrell administration is trying to jumpstart the project with a one-year cooperative endeavor agreement, or CEA, which would not require council approval. According to Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell, implementing the project in full will still eventually require a multiyear CEA — and a council vote — but that may only come after a pilot period. 

“Getting to the best outcome requires [the council’s] involvement,” Tidwell said. “The 1-year CEA is meant to engage stakeholders and pilot some of the technologies while we work with the council towards a multi-year [CEA].”

Tidwell said developing a multi-year CEA would involve “multiple public meetings where the CEA can be vetted.” He added that the one-year CEA was not an attempt to “get around” the City Council, although Moreno didn’t quite agree.

“The administration says they are not trying to circumvent the Council with the CEA process, but a one year CEA circumvents the Council,” Moreno said. 

She said the one-year CEA was “another red flag” on a project she was already skeptical of.

“As I’ve said before, this could be the best deal for New Orleans to transform into a model for smart city and public wifi deployment, but so far the only thing I’ve seen from this plan is red flags.”

Ignite Cities

The contract-fixing allegations in New Orleans revolve around Ignite Cities’ role as a “pro-bono” consultant for the city. The firm helped develop and write the open bid documents — called a request for proposal, or RFP — for the “smart cities” project. Despite being a for-profit company, Ignite Cities didn’t charge the city for its services. 

The city received five proposals in response to that RFP, and ended up selecting a proposal from Smart+Connected NOLA, a business consortium led by wireless giant Qualcomm and JLC Infrastructure.

Ignite Cities wasn’t listed as an official member of Smart+Connected NOLA in its bid. But almost a full year before the RFP was released, Ignite Cities publicly announced a partnership with the consortium’s two leading companies — Qualcomm and JLC — to deliver the exact type of project Smart+Connected NOLA plans to build in New Orleans. 

The partnership aimed to bring “smart and connected” technology to businesses and local governments, with Qualcomm acting as the technology partner and JLC providing the necessary capital. Ignite Cities, meanwhile, would “provide its expertise in building municipal partnerships.”

George Burciaga, the founder of Ignite Cities, appears to be adept at forming relationships with city officials, including in New Orleans. Cantrell is one of four mayors with a featured page on the Ignite Cities website. Emails obtained by The Lens show he also appears to have good working relationships with other administration officials, including Rhodes, the subject of Moreno’s subpoena. 

Earlier this year, Burciaga posted a selfie with Cantrell and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot at the US Conference of Mayors. Burciaga was also present at two of the events held by the Cantrell administration last week with Magic Johnson to promote the project. Cantrell later posted a photo of herself and Burciaga together in a wine cellar. 

“I’m not leaving any comments or anything like that,” Burciaga told The Lens after one of the events. “I’m here supporting New Orleans.”

Soon after Smart+Connected NOLA was selected as the winning bidder on the “smart cities” RFP, Cox Communications, which submitted a losing proposal for the same RFP, lodged a formal protest with the city. Cox claimed that the winning consortium had an unfair advantage because of its partnership with Ignite Cities, and Ignite Cities’ direct influence on and early access to the city’s RFP. 

Cox called the process a “coordinated effort in order to guarantee the award to a preselected or predetermined Respondent.”

The city ended up dismissing the Cox protest, primarily because Ignite Cities wasn’t a formal member of the winning consortium and because the city wasn’t aware of any financial interest that Ignite Cities had in the project. The city did not, however, provide any explanation as to why a for-profit company would be giving free advice on a project it had no financial stake in.

But new reporting out of Illinois last week proves that at least one top executive at Ignite Cities had a clear financial motivation to get the city to select Smart+Connected NOLA. 

The reporting from Illinois TV station WCIA-TV centered on Ignite Cities’ managing director, Reyahd Kazmi, and his wife, City Clerk of Chicago Anna Valencia. The station reported on emails from Valencia, a public official, showing how she used her position to advance government projects that involved Kazmi and Ignite Cities. 

Vitally, the report revealed that Kazmi is also a registered lobbyist for IKE Smart Cities — a WiFi kiosk manufacturer that, unlike Ignite Cities, is an official member of the Smart+Connected NOLA consortium that would be responsible for installing dozens of kiosks around New Orleans. Kazmi was also present at the recent “WiFi for All” events in New Orleans to promote the smart cities project.  

The Lens sent those details to the administration. Tidwell argued that the city’s original justification for dismissing the contract protest was still valid, although he didn’t explain how that was consistent with the reporting out of Illinois.

“To the City’s knowledge, Ignite has no financial stake in the RFP and so was not prohibited from participating in discussions with the City,” Tidwell said Monday.

The Lens reached out to Ignite Cities, Kazmi, Burciaga and the leading partners of Smart+Connected NOLA for comment on this story. None responded.

The WCIA-TV report says that Burciaga “leaned on” Valencia to help connect Ignite Cities to public officials in New Orleans regarding an idea he had for a “City ID” program. The emails indicate that Valencia and her office talked to New Orleans officials about the idea. The city, along with Ignite Cities, would go on to announce the Crescent City Card program in New Orleans. 

The city announced the Crescent City Card last year. The announcement said the card, expected to launch sometime this year, will provide residents with easier acess to city services. It also has a limited guaranteed income component, where 125 residents will be selected to receive $350 per month, a program funded by the groupMayors For A Guaranteed Income.  According to emails published by WCIA-TV, Burciaga intends for the program to grow into a municipal ID program, similar to Chicago’s CityKey, which was spearheaded by Valencia.

In her subpoena, one category of documents that Moreno requested in her subpoena is “any and all communications with George Burciaga, Anna Valencia and Reyahd Kazmi.”

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...