Jonathan Rhodes, the city of New Orleans employee at the center of investigations into alleged contract steering and self-dealing stemming from an abandoned public wifi and “smart cities” deal, has resigned from city employment, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Office confirmed Monday afternoon.
Rhodes, who served as the director of the Mayor’s Office of Utilities beginning in 2019, resigned effective Friday, Aug. 12, according to Cantrell spokesman Gregory Joseph.
Joseph said he did not know why Rhodes had quit his $98,000 per year job, as he had not seen Rhodes’ letter of resignation. Asked if Rhodes had been asked to resign, Joseph said no. The city is starting the process of finding a replacement to head the Office of Utilities, he said. Rhodes could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Rhodes was a central player in the Cantrell administration’s proposed “smart cities” project. In April 2021, he made the public announcement that the city would open bids for the deal, which officials said would include a low-cost internet service provider and the installation of so-called “smart devices” — such as camera-equipped smart streetlights and traffic signals that collect data on traffic patterns — around the city.
But that deal never went through. Last summer, Cox Communications, which also bid on the smart cities contract, accused the city of rigging the bid. And questions of the proposed deal — about Cox’s allegations, proposed costs and privacy concerns — went unanswered, leading to increased scrutiny from the City Council and the media late last year and into early 2022.
In April, shortly after the council announced that it would open a formal investigation into the contracting process, the city’s preferred contractor withdrew from the project.
Rhodes was the first of a number of city officials to be subpoenaed by the New Orleans City Council for information about the smart cities project and his involvement with a “pro bono” consulting firm called Ignite Cities.
In 2020 and 2021, Ignite Cities, a Chicago-based company headed by George Burciaga, had been working with Rhodes to develop a proposal for a smart cities project, a long-term and potentially lucrative deal for a contractor selected to build and run it for the city.
At the same time, Burciaga was partnered with wireless giant Qualcomm and Chicago-based investment firm JLC Infrastructure, both part of the business consortium, Smart+Connected NOLA, that would go on to be a city purchasing panel’s top choice for the city business: a proposed 15-year deal.
Emails later released showed that In the months leading up to the April 2021 announcement that the city was opening bids for the project, Rhodes was in frequent communication with Burciaga, including sending him advance drafts of the city’s request for proposals, which detailed exactly what officials were looking for in a contractor.
Smart+Connected NOLA received the purchasing committee’s recommendation in June 2021. A month later, Cox Communications, which had also submitted a proposal for the deal, filed a formal protest accusing Ignite and Rhodes of colluding to illegally rig the bidding process in the consortium’s favor. The city dismissed the protest.
Meanwhile, Rhodes had also founded a side business, called Verge Internet, with city IT staffer Christopher Wolff.
Wolff was part of the selection committee that picked Smart+Connected NOLA for the smart cities project. And in September 2021, The Times-Picayune later reported, Verge partnered with Qualcomm and JLC for a bid on a similar project in Los Angeles. Neither had disclosed the existence of Verge Internet to the city.
In testimony before the City Council in April, Rhodes denied that he was engaged in bid-rigging and said that there was no quid pro quo arrangement with Qualcomm and JLC. He and Wolff had not made any money from Verge and were not paid for the Los Angeles work.
Smart+Connected NOLA never signed a contract with the city, though officials continued to negotiate a deal even after the first council subpoena went out. Days before his testimony, Smart+Connected NOLA dropped out, effectively killing the deal.
But the council investigation has just begun. Last month, council members voted to hire three investigative firms to lead it. Andrew Tuozzolo, chief of staff for Council President Helena Moreno, told The Lens on Monday that Rhodes’ departure from city employment will not have an impact on the investigation.
“Investigators are hired, being on-boarded and beginning to review voluminous material,” he wrote in an email.
This story was updated with comments from Councilwoman Helena Moreno’s office.