Councilwoman Helena Moreno during an April 27, 2022 hearing in which the city questioned the director of the Mayor's Office of Utiltiies, Jonathon Rhodes, under oath regarding contract-fixing allegations related to the city's controversial "smart cities" project. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

New Orleans City Councilwoman Helena Moreno has directed the council’s executive counsel to draft motions that would urge local prosecutors to formally charge three high-level city officials with contempt after they failed to respond to council subpoenas related to the ongoing investigation into the city’s now-abandoned “smart cities” project. 

City law gives the council the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, and also establishes the misdemeanor crime of “contempt of the council” for those who don’t comply. But it’s rare for the council to push for criminal contempt of council charges. A staffer for Moreno said he was not aware of any previous instances. 

It’s another illustration of the council’s assertive approach to investigating the contract-fixing and self-dealing allegations that sank the smart cities project, despite attempts from the Cantrell administration to dismiss them. 

The motions, which would need approval by the full council, would charge the three officials — Director of Strategic Initiatives Josh Cox, Chief of Staff Clifton Davis and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Arthur Walton — with the misdemeanor crime of contempt of council, and would urge the City Attorney’s Office to formally indict and prosecute them.

If the City Attorney’s Office is found to have a conflict of interest, the recommendation would likely be redirected to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, according to Moreno’s office. It is likely there would be a conflict of interest in this case, since the city attorney acts as legal counsel to the mayor and often to city employees. But the motions had not yet been fully drafted as of Wednesday afternoon, so the exact language isn’t yet confirmed.

The three officials have already blown the subpoena deadline — Tuesday at 10 a.m. And as of noon Wednesday, they still had not provided the requested documents. 

According to Moreno, the administration didn’t miss the subpoena deadline by accident. And she said it appeared that the delay was due to the administration’s attempt to “prod” the Office of Inspector General to step in and ask the council to back down from its investigation. 

It was not clear as of Wednesday afternoon if the contempt motions will ever get to a full council vote. Moreno initiated the motions just hours after the subpoenas’ deadlines. Later on Tuesday evening, City Attorney Donesia Turner informed Moreno that the administration changed its position following a call with the OIG, and had instructed the three officials to comply and turn over the subpoenaed documents as soon as possible. (On Wednesday, however, Davis sued the council on behalf of the administration in attempt to block his subpoena.)

Moreno said the administration’s move tracks with a consistent theme throughout the smart cities investigation — every time the council attempts to clarify the situation, it reveals new information that raises eyebrows and questions about whether the Cantrell administration is being completely forthright. 

“​​It’s one weird step after another with this thing,” Moreno told The Lens on Tuesday.

City asks OIG whether it will discourage council investigation 

Moreno has publicly raised concerns about the smart cities project since late last year, shortly after The Lens published an article about how the 240-page proposal from the city’s preferred contractor omitted key details about how the project would work and how much it would cost. 

Shortly after, The Lens reported on contract-fixing allegations lodged by a rival bidder, which accused the city of conspiring with a “pro bono” consultant to direct the project to a predetermined winner. 

Council scrutiny increased earlier this year when it was revealed that two employees that played central roles in developing the project had, at the same time, co-founded a side business that worked in the same smart cities industry, and had even worked alongside companies that were selected to work on the New Orleans project. 

The council launched a formal investigation in April. The city’s selected contractors for the project dropped out shortly after that. But the council’s investigation has continued. 

The council has so far subpoenaed five administration officials. One official — Director of the Mayor’s Office of Utilities Jonathan Rhodes — has already turned over a trove of documents. A second official — IT staffer Christopher Wolff — has until Friday to fulfill his subpoena. 

The other three had a deadline of Tuesday at 10 a.m. But as of Wednesday at noon, the three had not responded, aside from a single notebook handed over by Josh Cox. 

On Tuesday around noon — two hours after the deadline — City Attorney Donesia Turner informed Moreno that the administration was waiting to turn over the subpoenaed documents until she got a response to a letter she sent to the city OIG.

Turner’s letter, sent last Friday, asked the OIG to “confirm whether the Council may continue its independent investigations parallel to the OIG’s investigations.” 

The OIG appears to be conducting its own investigation of the smart cities allegations, independent of the council. The OIG seized the computer of at least one city official at the center of the conflict-of-interest allegations last month. The OIG told The Lens that as a matter of policy, it couldn’t confirm or deny whether it had launched a full investigation. But Turner’s letter references the “OIG’s Investigations” and said the city was working to turn over “requested electronic records” on top of the already-seized electronics. 

In the letter, Turner referenced a previous instance when the council and OIG had announced concurrent investigations — the 2019 collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel construction site that killed three workers and injured many more. 

When the council announced its intention to launch an investigation into the collapse, then-Inspector General Derry Harper publicly asked the council to defer its investigation out of concern that it would interfere with the separate OIG investigation. The council ended up heeding Harper’s letter and shelving the investigation.

In a letter to current Inspector General Ed Michel, Turner asked whether the OIG, similar to the Hard Rock case, would ask the council to shelve its current investigation into the smart cities allegations. 

Moreno pointed out there are big differences between the current situation and the OIG’s previous Hard Rock request. Unlike the Hard Rock investigation, the OIG hasn’t publicly announced its opposition to the council’s smart cities investigation or, according to Moreno, brought any concerns directly to the council.

“The city attorney is the one who had reached out to Mr. Michel about whether or not he was going to step in,” Moreno said. “If the OIG had any type of concern with the council’s investigation, I would have assumed that he would have, on his own, weighed in, and not needed prodding from the City Attorney’s office.”

She said that even if the OIG did oppose the council’s investigation, the council subpoenas are still legally binding. The council would need to heed the OIG’s request and cancel the subpoena in order for the officials to be let off the hook.

“Even if the OIG did weigh in, it still doesn’t excuse them from the subpoena,” Moreno said. 

On Tuesday evening, Turner told Moreno that she had spoken with Inspector General Ed Michel and that as a result, she had instructed the three employees to comply with the subpoena and turn over the requested documents as soon as possible.

On Wednesday, Michel wrote a letter to Turner saying that his office did not currently intend to ask the council to back off its investigation.

“The OIG has not identified any grounds to anticipate that the City Council’s investigation will interfere with the OIG’s performance of its duties,” the letter said. “Accordingly, at this time, the OIG will refrain from making any recommendations to the City Council regarding the City Council’s independent investigation.”

Michel told The Lens on Tuesday that he couldn’t comment on the phone call, the investigation or his views on Turner’s letter. Cantrell’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

This story was updated following the filing of a lawsuit, by the Cantrell administration, to block enforcement of one of the three subpoenas.

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...