Reinventing Conflict Of Interest
Sean Cummings has been touted as the savior of New Orleans in recent interviews in the Atlantic and National Geographic Traveler. I say interviews, but they are more like fluffy PR pieces loaded with complimentary softball questions which is a possibility considering Cummings uses the services of Simone Ink, a Washington, DC based “boutique” PR firm to pimp himself and his “boutique” holdings such as International House and Loft 523.
Cummings is the director of the New Orleans Building Corp, appointed in 2003 byÂ Mayor C Ray Nagin. Since that time Cummings has been hard at work creating a “new” New Orleans in the form of the Reinventing the Crescent plan, a six mile, 300 million dollar riverfront redevelopment that spans everything from public bike paths and greenspace to condos, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues. (Although I have seen estimates for this project as high as one-billion dollars. Also, can someone explain to me how they can build a 900 room hotel/cruise ship terminal for 250 million dollars and the proposed bike paths will cost 135 million? It’s a thin coating of concrete on dirt with a few plants sprinkled here and thereâ€¦ 135 million?) While it’s an incredibly good idea, making use of property which is languishing, there has been a great deal made about the Cummings family holdings and whether or not there is a conflict of interest between those properties and the new development.
Between 2005 and 2008 Cummings has been before the Louisiana Board of Ethics numerous times. In June of 2005, the LBE ruled that as director of NOBC, Cummings had a conflict of interest under the state Code of Governmental Ethics and he should not participate “in matters involving the redevelopment of the New Orleans riverfront, since it would affect property he owns.” This opinion was withdrawn in September of the same year after Cummings appealed the decision, calling it “too general in scope.” In the withdrawal opinion, the LBE stated that “there was insufficient information available to the board regarding particular transactions in order to enable the board to define the interests of Mr. Cummings, if any, in the proposed transactions.” Of course at this time the redevelopment was still in the planning stages and the LBE planned further study of the matter.
In March of 2008, Cummings himself asked for the LBE to rule on the finalized Reinventing the Crescent plan in order to dispel any illusiory conflicts. The following May the LBE ruled that he did not have a “substantial” financial interest in the redevelopment and allowed him to continue as director of the NOBC. Did anyone bother to look at a map? Did they look at properties owned by his family?
Between Sean and his father, John Cummings, III, there are seven properties located within the designated redevelopment area district zone and an additional thirteen within eight blocks of the area. This coincides with an interestingly worded statement by Sean’s dad that “some properties are eight blocks away from the area” In fact, two properties are about eight blocks away. Of the 20 known properties in question most are either within the redevelopment area, or are within two blocks. Looking at the map, it’s interesting to see how nicely they frame the redevelopment.
The elder Cummings says that most of the properties were acquired well before the Reinventing the Crescent plan was proposed. For instance he says he bought 416 Gravier, where his offices are located, in 1975. Well, he’s close. Only half of the properties were purchased prior to Seans appointment. Following are the known properties and dates of purchase listed at the OPBOA website as of July 26, 2009:
1993 – 3036 Chartres
1994 – 2900 Chartres
2001 – 1101 Tchoupitoulas (See next paragraph)
2002 – 601 Frenchman
2004 – 544 Esplanade
2009 – 441 Gravier
John Cummings III:
1973 – 416 Gravier
1973 – 412 Gravier
1986 – 28812 Triangle
1988 – 1114 Constance
1988 – 1110 Constance
1995 – 410 Natchez (an additional unit at this address was purchased in 1997)
2005 – 626 Mazant
2005 – 4030 Royal
2005 – 4024 Royal
2005 – 864 S Peters
2005 – 4019 Chartres
2007 – 1050 Annunciation
2007 – 1000 S Peters
2008 – 309 Magazine
Some of the property listings include more than one building/address. I don’t claim to understand the cryptic markings and abbreviations of the OPBOA but the following addendum to 1101 Tchoup’s property file clearly indicates that it includes much more than just 1101. By looking at Google Earth, it appears that almost the entire block encompassed by Annunciation, Tchoup, Chase and Gaienne is lumped under this one address. 1101 Tchoup was initially purchased in 2001, two years before Cummings appointment to the NOBC in 2003, but in 2003 the added properties were purchased and amended to the 1101 address.
SQ 70 A LOT L NOW LOT L-4 TCHOUPITOULAS & JOHN CHURCHILL CHASE (FKA/CALLIOPE)
160’3/159’8X127’8/128/2 SEE E
AS OF 11/17/03 PER JOHNNY ODOM TO ADD THE FOLLOWING ADDRESS:
1103-05-07 TCHOUPITOULAS & 610 HOUSE,LOFT 1-20 & PENTHOUS 1-5. SEE E
THIS PROPERTY WAS RESUB IN MAY OF 2003,SALE & RESUB INCLUDES
1119 TCHOUPITOULAS 1110 & 1128 ANNUNCIATION AS OF 7/15/04 SEE E
PROPERTY WAS CONVERTED TO CONDOS SEE 1101 TCHOUPITOULAS UNITS S01-SO4, L01-L20 &PH01-05
Do you see anything that might raise a red flag in the Conflict of Interest Department here? Lest anyone think that the 2005 purchases were carpetbagging of Katrina victims’ property, all of them were made well before the storm hit but of the seven properties located within the redevelopment area, three were bought in 2005 and one in 2007 by John Cummings, well after Seans’ appointment but prior to the LBE’s initial ruling.
To Sean’s credit, he has a number of people speaking up for his moral and ethical bearing. His father is one. Mayor Ray Nagin and City Council-members Arnie Fielkow and Jackie Clarkson are three others. All have expressed nothing but praise for the boy. Of course, Nagin, Fielkow and Clarkson all sit on the seven-member Board of Directors for the NOBC so perhaps we need another review by the LBE. Additional NOBC board-members include Xavier President Norman Francis and Councilman Cynthia Willard-Lewis. There are supposed to be three “private citizens” on the board, but that would bring the total members to eight, not seven. Regardless, there is no mention of any board members other than the five listed above on the NOBC website.
Of course, all this information would mean something were it not for the inescapable fact that it just doesn’t matter. Had the LBE found a conflict of interest, Cummings would have been forced to recuse himself from his post but he and his father would still own the properties and reap the benefits of their proximity to the development. You may ask what possible profits there could be and I shall give a few examples:
The property at 626 Mazant was purchased for $825,000. It is basically an empty corner lot occupying a quarter of its square block. The rest of the block is made up of small homes and businesses. It sits across Mazant from another empty lot and across Chartres from the Pauline Street Wharf. Now imagine how much that parcel of land would sell for if there was an amphitheater or public park across Chartres. Imagine if condos or apartments were erected here, the difference in rent or condo fees being so near to the Bywater Amphitheater. Especially if the upper units looked directly onto the stage? As stated in an earlier reply to a similar post, the difference between “a charming condo blocks away from the crumbling Glidden Paint factory” and “a charming condo blocks away from the Riverfront Wonderland” is about $1000 a month on your rent.
I can see both good and bad in the Reinventing the Crescent plan. The good being greenspaces, new things to do, revitalization of wasted space and a general “prettying-up” of a very ugly stretch of the Mississippi River. On the other hand, there are the inevitable fast-food joints, strip malls, parking nightmares, towering condos blocking the river view and river access, increased rents, closed “public” parks at night and Disneyfication of historic districts. While the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, it remains abundantly clear that the profits of the two outweigh all of the citizens of New Orleans.