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

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Sidney Cates on Wednesday denied a request from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to block part of a City Council investigation into contract-fixing allegations related to the controversial and now-abandoned “smart cities” project. 

A lawsuit filed by the administration last week sought to dismiss a subpoena the council served to Cantrell’s Chief of Staff Clifton Davis last month. The council has so far subpoenaed documents from five Cantrell administration officials as part of its ongoing investigation. Council members said last week that three of them blew the subpoena deadline and hadn’t responded yet — Davis, Director of Strategic Initiatives Josh Cox and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Arthur Walton.

Immediately after the ruling on Wednesday, the council announced that it would move forward with its plans to consider contempt of council charges against two officials, Davis and Walton, at its Thursday meeting. A council official told The Lens that the council was still determining whether Cox has complied with his subpoena. 

“Since we first learned of the ‘Smart Cities’ project, I’ve been focused on revealing the truth behind the real purpose and scope of the initiative. Today, we took another step towards revealing that truth,” said Council President Helena Moreno in the Wednesday press release. “The public deserves a full accounting of any potential wrongdoing, and no City official should attempt to shield that truth from the public.”

The council announced last week that it planned to vote on motions to charge Davis, Walton and Cox with the misdemeanor crime of contempt of council and urge local prosecutors to formally indict them. Davis, acting in his official capacity as Cantrell’s chief of staff, filed the lawsuit against the council the next day.

In a brief hearing last week, the administration convinced another judge to approve a temporary restraining order, blocking enforcement of the subpoena pending Wednesday’s full hearing. But Cates’ ruling puts an end to the restraining order, meaning that Davis is once again in violation of the council subpoena. 

After Cates announced his ruling, attorney James Garner, who is representing Davis in his official capacity — meaning on the Cantrell administration’s behalf — said that he planned to ask the court to temporarily stay the ruling and resume the temporary restraining order while the administration appeals the decision to a higher court. The City Council’s attorney, Adam Swensek, said the council would object.

“I suspect this is not over,” Cates said.

Assuming Cates does not grant a stay before Thursday’s City Council meeting, Wednesday’s ruling should allow the council to move forward with contempt charges against both city officials.

“Although Judge Sidney Cates’ ruling is regrettable, we respect the court’s decision,” Cantrell spokesman Gregory Joseph said in a statement. “Our office will continue to fully cooperate with the Office of Inspector General’s inquiry and work with the City Council to satisfy their demands in a timely manner.”

Cates did rule in Cantrell’s favor when considering a motion the council filed this week to disqualify the administration’s private attorney, the law firm Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert. The council had argued that the administration didn’t follow legal requirements associated with hiring an outside attorney, and that the administration should be instead represented by the City Attorney’s Office.

Council members Moreno and JP Morrell harshly criticized the administration last week for using public dollars to sue the City Council in order to block information being released to the public. 

But Cates didn’t see enough legal merit to the council’s arguments, and allowed Garner to continue as the administration’s attorney.

Dual Council and OIG investigations

Moreno first publicly questioned the smart cities project in late 2021, shortly after a report from The Lens published a report outlining the ambiguous goals, missing details and privacy concerns raised in the public-private partnership proposal selected by the city. 

Questions around the project only grew after The Lens reported that a competing bidder on the project, Cox Communications, submitted a protest claiming that the selection was rigged.

For months after, the administration failed to answer basic questions from the council, as well as The Lens, to clarify the project’s key details and show that the public bid process was done above board. Even with the many open questions, Cantrell pressured the council and the public to support it, offering a vision of free or low-cost public WiFi — a project only briefly mentioned in the smart cities proposal, without a full plan to implement or pay for it — and the star power of NBA Legend, and partner on the project, Earvin “Magic” Johnson. 

In response, the council issued a subpoena to one of the officials at the center of the project, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Utilities Jonathan Rhodes. It was soon revealed that Rhodes co-founded an internet company with another city employee who also worked on the smart cities project, and that the side business had worked alongside the same companies that won the public bid for the New Orleans project. 

That led the council to launch a formal investigation into the project, issuing subpoenas to four additional administration officials. At the same time, the council passed a resolution calling on the city’s Office of Inspector General to start its own investigation. 

It appears the OIG did subsequently launch an investigation into the project. The office seized the electronics of officials involved in the project, which, according to court records, included Rhodes, IT staffer Christopher Wolff, deputy chief of staff Liana Elliot and Director of Office of Youth and Families Emily Wolff.

The OIG and council investigations are different in nature. OIG investigations must be done confidentially until a full public report is released, if one is even released at all. The council investigation, on the other hand, allows the public to see documents in real time and watch public hearings where officials answer questions under oath. The two investigations, records show, also aren’t targeting the same set of officials. 

The Cantrell administration is now arguing that it should only have to comply with the OIG’s investigation, not the council’s. And the administration last month attempted to get the OIG to intervene and ask the council to stop its investigation.

City Attorney Donesia Turner wrote a letter to current Inspector General Ed Michel asking to “confirm whether the Council may continue its independent investigations parallel to the OIG’s investigations.”

In the letter, Turner pointed to a previous instance when the council and OIG had announced concurrent investigations — the deadly 2019 collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel construction site. In that instance, then-Inspector General Derry Harper asked the council to drop its public investigation in order to avoid interfering with his confidential one. 

When the three officials blew their subpoena deadline last week, Turner told Moreno that the city was withholding the documents until they got a response from the OIG. Later that night, Turner told Moreno that she spoke to the Inspector General and had instructed the three officials to comply with their subpoenas and turn over the documents as soon as possible.

The next morning Michel sent a letter confirming that he had no intention of asking the council to stop 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.”

But instead of complying with the subpoena, Davis filed the suit against the City Council.

Cantrell argues OIG interference, despite OIG’s contrary claim

Despite the OIG’s recent letter, the central argument in the administration’s lawsuit is that the council’s investigation would interfere with the OIG investigation. During Wednesday’s hearing, Judge Cates said the main problem with the city’s argument was that it was directly contradicted by the OIG letter.

“Turner makes an inquiry as the chief legal officer of the city, and the inspector general, as well as the city attorney, say no problem,” Cates said. 

Cates questioned why the administration continued to present the letter from the previous Harper related to the Hard Rock investigation.

“Wasn’t that a different inspector general, a different city attorney and a different city council?” Cates asked?

Garner said the administration thought the Hard Rock letter made more sense than what the current OIG told them last week.

“The reasoning from that letter is better reasoning than we hear in this case,” Garner said. “I would pray for you follow that logic, rather than the logic we’re hearing today.”

Garner said that the Hard Rock decision was better because “it wasn’t political,” and said the current council was trying to “turn the investigation into a political spectacle.”

Swensek, the council’s attorney, pushed back, saying there were “legitimate concerns” surrounding the smart cities project and how it was developed. 

“It’s a common thing to dismiss investigations when you don’t like them as politicizing something, whether it’s the January 6 congressional inquiry or what have you,” Swensek said. “Accountability is not always an attack. And seeking transparency isn’t necessarily a witch hunt.” 

This story has been updated with additional details from Wednesday’s hearing.

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...