New Orleans City Hall (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans Office of Inspector General on Wednesday seized the work computer of Christopher Wolff, one of the city employees at the center of the New Orleans City Council’s escalating investigation into alleged self-dealing and contract-rigging in the city’s now-abandoned “smart cities” project.

Wolff’s attorney, Michael Kennedy, confirmed the seizure to The Lens. He said he believed the IG’s office took electronics from additional employees as well, but added that he couldn’t confirm the additional seizures. 

“My impression is that other people’s were seized, it wasn’t just Mr. Wolff’s,” Kennedy said Thursday. “They can look at whatever they want. My client has not done anything. Everything involving Christopher has been completely above board. So if they want to waste taxpayer money by searching for things, go right ahead.”

Spokespeople for the city and the IG’s office both said they don’t comment on ongoing investigations.

Wolff, who works in the Department of Information Technology and Innovation, is one of the central figures in allegations that city officials helped rig the public bid process for a multimillion-dollar smart cities project. The project, first announced last year, aimed to create a new “city-directed” internet service and install so-called smart devices — used to collect data to inform the city’s decision making and sell for revenue — around the city.

Wolff and another employee — Mayor’s Office of Utilities Director Jonathon Rhodes — played significant roles in developing the project, putting it out for public bid and evaluating vendor bids. At the same time, they co-founded a side business called Verge Internet and privately advised at least one of the companies that would go on to win the New Orleans bid. 

Last summer, Wolff sat on the city selection committee that chose the winning bidder for the project — Smart+Connected NOLA, a consortium of businesses that included wireless giant Qualcomm, Chicago investment firm JLC Infrastructure and “smart kiosk” manufacturer IKE Smart City. 

But a rival bidder for the project, Cox Communications, submitted a formal protest to the city, arguing the process was compromised by the heavy involvement of a “pro bono” consultant that was advising the city on developing the public bid. 

The consultant — Chicago-based Ignite Cities — wasn’t listed as an official member of the Smart+Connected NOLA consortium. But it had previously announced a formal partnership with JLC and Qulacomm. 

Internal city emails later revealed that Ignite Cities founder — George Burciaga — was in regular communication with Rhodes in the months leading up to the April 2021 bid opening. The emails show that Rhodes and Burciaga discussed the proposed scope of work that would appear in the city bid solicitation, called a request for proposals, and that Rhodes provided Burciaga a copy of the RFP weeks before it was made public. 

The city dismissed Cox’s protest. Rhodes was part of the team that evaluated and responded to the Cox complaint.

Around the same time Rhodes and Wolff began working on smart cities initiatives in New Orleans, they co-founded a side business called Verge Internet, which aimed to deliver a new internet service using the same technology proposed for the New Orleans project. 

Through the company, the two advised Qualcomm on a similar project it was pursuing in Los Angeles last year. The Times-Picayune last week published a document that Qualcomm submitted in Los Angeles which listed Verge Internet as a member of the team, along with JLC infrastructure. 

After several articles published by The Lens — as well as an Illinois TV report highlighting Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia’s connection to Ignite Cities through her husband, Ignite managing director and IKE Smart City lobbyist Reyahd Kazmi — raised concerns about the bidding process, the council issued a subpoena to Rhodes last month demanding hundreds of emails and requiring him to appear for questioning.  

The council has since expanded its investigation and subpoenaed additional employees, including Wolff. And it recently began the process of hiring a third-party investigator to aid in that effort. Meanwhile, Smart+Connected NOLA announced late last month that it was dropping out of the project.

The council also requested the Office of Inspector General to conduct its own investigation, which now appears to be underway. 

In a statement, the New Orleans Office of Inspector General told The Lens it “does not discuss potential and or ongoing Investigative matters.” 

Kennedy, Wolff’s attorney, informed the City Council on Thursday that the seizure could impact his ability to fully and timely respond to the council’s subpoena.

“Obviously this could affect Christopher’s ability to timely produce documents as the inspector general has seized his city computer,” Kennedy said. “Mr. Wolff has not done anything and is cooperating as fully as he is capable.”

This story has been updated to include a response from a city spokesperson.

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...