Inspector general seizes computer of city employee embroiled in ‘smart cities’ controversy

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The New Orleans Inspector General’s office on Wednesday seized the work computer of Christopher Wolff, one of the city employees at the center of the New Orleans City Council’s growing investigation into allegations insider trading and contract rigging in the now abandoned “smart” of the city. cities project.

Wolff’s attorney, Michael Kennedy, confirmed the seizure to The Lens. He said he believed the IG office also took electronic devices from other employees, but added he could not confirm additional seizures.

“My impression is that other people were seized, it wasn’t just Mr. Wolff’s,” Kennedy said Thursday. “They can watch whatever they want. My client did nothing. Everything about Christopher has been completely above board. So if they want to waste taxpayer dollars looking for things, go ahead.

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 bidding process for the project. multi-million dollar smart cities. The project, first announced last year, aimed to create a new “city-led” internet service and install so-called smart devices – used to collect data to inform city decision-making and sell to generate revenue – across the city.

Wolff and another employee — the director of the mayor’s office of utilities, Jonathon Rhodes — played a significant role in developing the project, putting it out to public tender and evaluating bids from vendors. At the same time, they co-founded a side business called Verge Internet and privately advised at least one of the companies that would win the New Orleans bid.

Last summer, Wolff served on the city’s selection committee that chose the winning bidder for the project – Smart + Connected NOLA, a consortium of companies that included wireless giant Qualcomm, the investment company of Chicago JLC Infrastructure and “smart kiosk” maker IKE Smart City.

But a competing bidder for the project, Cox Communications, filed a formal protest with the city, arguing that the process was compromised by the heavy involvement of a “pro bono” consultant who was advising the city on the development of the public offer.

The consultant – Chicago-based Ignite Cities – was not 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 opening of bids in April 2021. The emails show that Rhodes and Burciaga discussed the scope of the proposed work that would appear in the city’s RFP, issued a request for proposals and that Rhodes provided Burciaga with a copy of the request for proposals weeks before it was due. be made public.

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

Around the same time Rhodes and Wolff began working on smart city initiatives in New Orleans, they co-founded a side company called Verge Internet, which aimed to provide a new internet service using the same technology as 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 published a document last week that Qualcomm submitted in Los Angeles that lists Verge Internet as a member of the team, as well as JLC infrastructure.

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

The council has since expanded its investigation and subpoenas other employees, including Wolff. And he recently began the process of hiring a third-party investigator to help with this effort. Meanwhile, Smart+Connected NOLA announced late last month that it was abandoning the project.

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

In a statement, the New Orleans Inspector General’s Office told The Lens that it “does not discuss potential and/or ongoing investigative matters.”

A spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Kennedy, Wolff’s attorney, advised city council Thursday that the seizure could impact his ability to respond fully and in a timely manner to council’s subpoena.

“Obviously, this could affect Christopher’s ability to produce documents in a timely manner, as the inspector general seized his city computer,” Kennedy said. “Mr. Wolff has done nothing and is cooperating as much as he is able.

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