In May, the city of New Orleans began sending out cash payments to a small group of residents for a 10-month pilot universal income program. Using grant funds from the advocacy group Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, the city began paying 125 young people $350 per month on a city-provided debit card for 10 months, with no restrictions as to how the money can be spent.
The city’s press release didn’t mention that the program was also a test case for its wider ambition — creating a combination municipal ID and debit card, dubbed the Crescent City Card and powered by Mastercard and a financial tech company called Mobility Capital Finance, or MoCaFi.
The city had previously made it clear, during an earlier press conference in November, that the ultimate goal wasn’t just to put these cards in the hands of 125 people, but to distribute them to residents citywide. The November press release featured quotes from executives from Mastercard, MoCaFi and Ignite Cities — a Chicago-based consultancy firm that helped put the project together.
The May announcement also made no mention of the long-term vision for the Crescent City Card, nor any of the companies involved, though the Crescent City Card is still in the works, slated to be released by the end of the year, according to city officials. But a lot had changed between November and May.
By May, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration was embroiled in a scandal over another major project: a multimillion-dollar “smart cities” deal collapsed in April after the City Council and the city Office of Inspector General launched investigations into allegations of bid-rigging and self-dealing by city officials and Ignite Cities.
THE ‘SMART CITIES’ INVESTIGATION
Documents made public as part of the council investigation show that Ignite Cities was also a central part of bringing Mastercard and MoCaFi to the city of New Orleans. And they show that the Mastercard deal has many of the same potential issues at the heart of the smart cities controversy.
Ignite’s strategy in the case of the Crescent City Card appears to have a lot in common with its role in the smart cities deal. In both cases, the firm brokered meetings for “partner” companies to pitch their products to the city. The companies and Ignite then helped the city launch and design new publicly funded projects.
In both cases, the city appears to have agreed to work with the companies long before publicly seeking bids for the projects, which is generally required for large contracts under city law. Only after months of detailed planning did city officials and Ignite begin discussing how the city could legally hire the preferred contractors.
Ignite first arranged for Mastercard to pitch Mayor LaToya Cantrell in Honolulu during the 2019 US Conference of Mayors. Mastercard was a sponsor of the event, and used the platform to announce the launch of its City Key program — an attempt to get cities to adopt the exact type of card New Orleans is now building.
That meeting occurred in June, two months after Ignite first inked a contract with Cantrell to become a “pro bono” consultant for the city to help connect officials with “global partners to reframe smart city offerings that can scale, replicate, and become profitable for the City of New Orleans.”
That introduction led to a series of meetings between Mastercard and city officials. August 2019 meeting notes indicate that the city verbally agreed to pursue Mastercard’s new program. That was nearly a year before the city launched any public procurement process for a “Multi-Purpose Identification Card.”
By the time the city put out a request for bids, in July 2020, officials had already met repeatedly with Mastercard and MoCaFi to discuss the project. According to city purchasing records, MoCaFi was the only bidder.
Cantrell spokesman Gregory Joseph told The Lens that the city was still working on the Crescent Card and anticipated that the cards would be available to all New Orleans residents “later this year.” However, he said that in order to do that, the City Council would need to approve a multi-year contract and pass a new ordinance. He did not explain what that ordinance would contain or when it would be introduced.
Mastercard, MoCaFi and Ignite Cities did not responded to requests for comment.
‘60,000 urban contacts’
At her November 2021 press conference, Cantrell appeared alongside executives from MasterCard and MoCaFi. Standing on stage at Rosenwald Recreation Center, she thanked the founder of Ignite Cities, George Burciaga, for arranging the meeting in Honolulu.
“George, you should be up here with me, man,” Cantrell said. “Because Ignite Cities, you were the first person that I met with, 2019, behind the stage at the US Conference of Mayors, where you brought me to the table with Mastercard. And that conversation grew into what we really are celebrating here this morning.”
Founded in 2018, Ignite Cities partners with tech and finance companies, connecting them to potential clients in local governments all over the country. But it does not describe its activities as lobbying, rather as consulting or advising, which it does at no cost to cities. The companies and cities it interacts with are not “clients” but “partners.” And it uses its political connections to bring those partners together.
In 2021 for example, as the city, Mastercard — an Ignite Cities partner, according to its website — and MoCaFi were negotiating several contracts, Ignite Cities CEO George Burciaga introduced New Orleans officials to City Clerk of Chicago Anna Valencia. Valencia is married to Ignite Cities’ managing director Reyahd Kazmi. Valencia helped implement a similar CityKey system in Chicago, and arranged a call with New Orleans officials to advise on how to implement it, emails show. (Valencia’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)
But Ignite Cities is not the only outside firm in the business of promoting smart cities technology to government officials.
Mastercard had a looser connection to the Cantrell administration through a London-based marketing company called PFD Media. PFD has also partnered with Ignite Cities, according to Ignite’s website.
Since 2019, Cantrell’s Chief Information Officer Kim LaGrue has served as president of the North American Region of the Cities Today Institute. The Cities Today Institute is an offshoot of Cities Today, a magazine focused on “sustainable urban development” — and a frequent cheerleader for smart cities initiatives — created and run by PFD Media.
Mastercard is one of PFD’s clients. PFD’s explicit goal, according to its website, is to maintain a roster of municipal officials, especially chief information officers like LaGrue, that its clients can market to directly.
“PFD has built its own network of over 60,000 urban contacts and has formal partnerships with city and industry associations,” its website says. “Through our contacts and partnerships, we are able to target your content to a curated audience to provide brand recognition and generate leads.”
Richard Forster, editor-in-chief of Cities Today and managing director of PFD Media, rejected any suggestion that his company and Ignite Cities are in the same business, noting that Ignite refers to itself as a consulting firm, while his firm deals in publishing and marketing.
“PFD Publications is a publishing and events business, which has produced its own magazines and publications including Cities Today as well as contract publishing for International government organisations and non-profit associations. It has funded some of its work through advertising and sponsorship in its publications and at its events both for its own titles and for partners. We also do content marketing for clients. A separate non-profit runs our training business,” he wrote in a July 12 email, after this article was first published. “But we do not get involved in advising companies or cities on projects; we do not write or draft RFPs; nor do we manage projects in cities, all of which are the activities of a consultancy and activities which your reporter describes as the business of Ignite Cities.”
Forster wrote that the partnership with Ignite Cities was a media partnership, “not a business partnership.” Cities Today was invited to attend and report on a series of mayoral panels organized by Ignite and the National League of Cites. The partnership ended earlier this year at the close of the series.
As part of its marketing business, PFD works with clients on “bespoke events,” its website says.
LaGrue has been a regular attendee at smart cities events, often hosted or sponsored by companies seeking city contracts.
In 2018, for example, LaGrue attended a Cities Today Institute event that brought together technology officials from cities across the country. The event was chaired by Miguel Gamiño, who had recently announced his departure from a position with the city of New York for the in the private sector.* A month later, Mastercard announced that he was to join the company.
Forster told The Lens that Cities Today invited Gamiño to the event in November 2017, when he was still employed by the city and months before his employment at Mastercard was announced.
In November 2019, after she joined the Cities Today Institute, LaGrue attended the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona. At the event, Mastercard announced that New Orleans had joined as a member of its “City Possible” network. LaGrue attended and praised Mastercard’s City Key program in an article following the event. According to a program for the event, Cities Today was an exhibitor there. And it was hired to work for an exhibitor on the Barcelona event, according to its website. (Forster, however, told The Lens that work was limited to graphic design for a nonprofit client that was exhibiting there. It was not hired by the event organizer — Fira de Barcelona — the city’s trade show organization.)
And in early March 2020, LaGrue co-hosted a Cities Today Institute event at Gallier Hall that included a roundtable discussion co-presented by Mastercard executive Maddie Callis, who was then director of City Possible.
“We have worked with Mastercard which has sponsored some of our events and which has advertised in our magazine: [its] content was clearly marked Sponsored Content when published,” Forster wrote. “But like all media companies we are vendor agnostic: the world’s leading financial newspapers will run advertising and take event sponsorship from rival banks in the same way that we have worked with Mastercard’s competitors on both advertising and event sponsorship, something that would not be possible if we were consulting because of the obvious conflict.”
Forster said that his company has “never had any involvement with or knowledge of Ignite Cities’ business affairs nor of those of Mastercard, other than what has been released publicly by both parties.” He also said that LaGrue’s recruitment to the Cities Today Institute was not related to PFD’s marketing work on behalf of its clients.
In a statement, LaGrue told The Lens that she isn’t compensated for her position at Cities Today and that the work “is technology driven, but city led.”
“Cities Today is a publication of PFD media company,” LaGrue said. “We are sure they have all types of partnerships with advertisers, editors and tech companies.”
‘Unprecedented, wide-scale data collection’
Under the plan announced last year, the Crescent City Card would not only be used to deliver her pilot universal basic income program, but that soon it would be available to all New Orleans residents. Not only would the card provide banking services and access emergency government funds, but it would provide access to public transportation, libraries and city recreation centers. And it would serve as an official government ID.
So far, it appears that the city has been able to launch three pilot programs, all of which appear to have been launched free of charge to the city. The cards were used to distribute Hurricane Ida relief funds that were donated to Forward Together New Orleans, a nonprofit known as “the Mayor’s Fund,” which was originally founded in early 2018 as then Mayor-elect Cantrell’s transition committee. The second pilot program was the universal basic income pilot.
Most recently, the city began a 10-month pilot program to install machines at over a dozen New Orleans Recreation Development Commission facilities that will allow the few residents who already have cards to use them to gain entry.
But the larger vision — to make the card available to any resident who wanted one — hasn’t been fulfilled yet. Neither have the goals of integrating the cards with the public transportation or library systems, or having the card become a federally-recognized form of government identification.
Municipal ID programs are widely supported for their ability to ensure that all people have access to a government-recognized ID. It’s seen as especially important for people who face barriers to getting existing IDs, like undocumented immigrants and unhoused people.
But these programs can also be controversial, especially when financial capabilities are included.
In New York for example, a municipal ID program started in 2015 was widely celebrated by local advocacy groups. But the city faced a backlash from many of those same groups in 2018 when it floated a proposal to add a financial tech chip to the cards — similar to what is being proposed in New Orleans.
“If implemented, the proposed changes to IDNYC would facilitate unprecedented, wide-scale data collection about New Yorkers’ travel, spending, and other activities,” a coalition of advocacy groups said in a 2019 letter to then-New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
(Miguel Gamiño was New York’s chief technology officer when the city initiated its attempt to add financial capabilities to IDNYC. Shortly after the city began seeking a supplier for the chips in 2018, Gamiño left his post to become the head of Mastercard’s City Possible initiative. He has been one of Mastercard’s central points of contact while negotiating with New Orleans officials on the Crescent Card program.)
A recent report from the Immigrant Defense Project and Northeastern University School of Law outlines many of the privacy and procurement concerns related to municipal ID programs. It specifically highlights the Mastercard’s City Key program as problematic.
The report points to privacy concerns, as well as potential problems with how these projects are adopted to begin with. The report says that these projects are often initiated by companies approaching cities with a solution, rather than the city identifying a problem and then going out in search of a solution.
After the public backlash in New York, the city shelved the chip-enabled ID plan.
Selling the plan to New Orleans
Around the same time that opposition to New York’s proposed cards was growing, New Orleans began considering a card of its own.
Mastercard pitched Cantrell on the city ID program in Honolulu in June 2019, roughly a year before the city would release a public bid for the project and nearly three years before the city signed any contract with the company.
Emails show that Ignite Cities helped arrange for a meeting between Cantrell and Mastercard during the 2019 US Conference of Mayors in Honolulu — an event sponsored by Mastercard.
Ignite Cities was already a contracted consultant for the city at that point.
The meeting in Honolulu led to an August 2019 meeting between “Mastercard/MoCaFi,” Ignite Cities and over a dozen Cantrell administration officials.
“City of New Orleans and Mastercard have verbally agreed to explore and prototype the Mastercard ID card for the use of a single government-issued ID card with multiple functions,” meeting notes written by Ignite Cities say.
The city’s “action items” included “Work with IGNITE on potential contract vehicles.”
At another meeting on August 21 between the city and Ignite, the first agenda item was “How do we procure this to move this forward?”
“This is a prototype at no cost to the city that will be limited and measured to show proof of concept,” the notes said. “Then, will go to a procurement phase for the actual release of the NOLA ID.”
In October 2019, the city received a full proposal: “NOLA ID: Presented by MoCaFi in collaboration with Mastercard City Key.”
The proposal was to launch a pilot City ID program that would initially focus on three groups of residents: participants in the city’s Youth Summer Employment program, people recently released from incarceration and city employees. After that, the card would be made available to the broader population.
“We believe that the NOLA ID can be expanded to all residents. This solution can lower the cost of delivering City services to residents while increasing financial inclusion and stability for every participant including the City residents who are the most vulnerable.”
In February 2020, following a series of weekly meetings, Burciaga emailed the city saying, “The MasterCard team is ready to move forward.”
“I would like to schedule a call to re-energize the city key solution for reentering citizens, the homeless population and all citizens across New Orleans,” the email said.
“I would like to explore the benefits of Mastercard, particularly as they relate to our plan of action to lead our residents through the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cantrell’s Director of Intergovernmental Relations Arthur Walton wrote to Burciaga in March 2020.
In July, the city put out a public bid, called a request for proposals, for a “Multi-Purpose Identification Card” that would serve as a government ID, debit card and access pass to city buildings and services.
Despite Mastercard’s lead role in the negotiations and City Key program, it didn’t submit a proposal itself. Instead, the proposal was submitted by MoCaFi, a company Mastercard has invested in and a member of Start Path. Asked why that was the case, city spokesman Gregory Joseph said, “That is a question for Mastercard.”
MoCaFi’s proposal was the only response to the RFP, according to city documents, and therefore was graded the highest responsive bidder by a city selection panel.
The city has since inked three agreements involving MoCaFi.
The first Cooperative Endeavor Agreement, or CEA, was signed with MoCaFi on May 12, 2021 to create the universal basic income pilot program for an initial one year trial. That CEA has since expired and was not renewed, according to Joseph.
A couple weeks later, on May 26, the city signed another CEA with MoCaFi. Unlike the first CEA, this one says explicitly that it’s the result of the 2020 public bid process. And rather than governing a pilot program, MoCaFi and New Orleans agreed to cooperate to build out the broader Crescent Card program for all New Orleans residents.
It’s not clear why the second agreement was signed only with MoCaFi. Mastercard is not listed as a party nor is it mentioned in the document.
But many of the card services mentioned in the second CEA — like entry to government facilities and use as a government ID — are provided through Mastercard and its City Key program. MoCaFi only contributed the financial services, which, the CEA notes, are optional features of the card.
The city has also signed one CEA between Mastercard, MoCaFi, Forward Together New Orleans and NORDC to provide a pilot program to install machines at recreation centers that will allow people to gain access with the Crescent Card.
In December 2021, as it was being negotiated, someone — it’s not clear who — made a note on the draft agreement related to its “non-solicitation statement,” which says that the companies involved didn’t hire any outside individual or company to help them win the contract.
“As George Burciaga and IgniteCities are involved in this project, have they received any fees related to the project?”
Although that CEA wasn’t signed, the one CEA the city has signed with Mastercard does have similar language.
“FTNO, Mastercard and MoCaFi swear that they have not employed or retained any company or person, other than a bona fide employee working solely for it, to solicit or secure this agreement,” it says.
This story has been updated with comments from Cities Today.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of the event. It was in 2018, not 2020 as originally published. and incorrectly reported that Miguel Gamiño had already joined Mastercard at the time. His employment with the company was announced the following month. (July 11, 2022)