Monday, May 05, 2008

Pockets of Development

This is an important read from Saturday's paper.

A commercial developer credited with swanky projects such as downtown's International House hotel, Cummings has long defended his government post by saying he amassed his holdings years before Mayor Ray Nagin tapped him to run the Building Corporation in 2003.

But the Marigny warehouse represents at least one instance in which Cummings pursued a private real estate deal at the same time he was lobbying for public investment in the riverfront that could raise the value of his personal land holdings. The sale occurred less than a month before the Building Corporation's board of directors authorized work to begin on the first phase of Reinventing the Crescent.

Mr. Cummings' transaction is being reviewed by the Louisiana Board of Ethics. It should be. He owns a lot of property and has a great deal of influence over development projects in the city through his post at the NOBC.
Cummings' appointment to the Building Corporation sparked criticism from day one. Not only is he personally entrenched in the development business, but his father, John Cummings III, wields an impressive real estate portfolio of his own.

A wealthy trial attorney known for directing a successful lawsuit against Shell Oil after a 1988 explosion at the Norco refinery, the elder Cummings controls dozens of properties that make him one of the biggest land holders in the state. Among his many possessions are a 3,000-acre parcel in eastern New Orleans and the former Whitney Plantation in St. Charles Parish.

Sean Cummings has failed to be direct with the Board of Ethics about his various property interests in the past.

Cummings first captured the attention of the ethics board in April 2005, when the City Planning Commission asked whether his livelihood created a conflict of interest with his public role.

Planning Commission Executive Director Yolanda Rodriguez wrote a letter to the board pointing to properties Cummings owned on Frenchmen Street, in the Warehouse District and in the 2900 and 3000 blocks of Chartres Street as holdings that "may represent a conflict."

The board initially ruled that the properties did constitute a conflict and said Cummings could not "participate in matters concerning the redevelopment of the New Orleans riverfront." However, the board recanted after Cummings appealed, asking him to return for a review when the Building Corporation solidified its riverfront designs.

With the Reinventing the Crescent plan in tow, Cummings requested another review in February. In a letter to the board, his attorney said the "relevant facts have not changed" since 2005. The letter cited a property at 2900-2920 Chartres St., a vacant building Cummings and his father have owned for more than 12 years, "long before the Reinventing the Crescent Plan was adopted" by the Building Corporation.

The letter does not mention Cummings' recent purchase of the Marigny warehouse. Cummings disclosed his ownership in an e-mail his attorney sent to the board two days before the April meeting, after a reporter asked why he did not include that information in his initial statement.

The letter also failed to disclose that Cummings and his father sold two Warehouse District lots along Tchoupitoulas and Annunciation streets for $1.37 million in December 2005. The sale occurred just two months before the Port of New Orleans approved a plan to sell a group of old wharves and other properties to the city for Reinventing the Crescent.

So what does this mean? I'm honestly not certain. Is NOBC's development plan for the Mississippi riverfront in the best interest of the public? What do residents get for all that spending? How do ordinary citizens benefit economically? What does it do for quality of life?

How much does it matter that the Cummings family stands to earn millions from increased value of the property they own by the river?

The warning sirens go off when you continue to acquire parcels of land in that area.

City Councilwoman Stacy Head expressed concern that Cummings has been working on private real estate deals and said she "was not aware that his holdings had increased" since he was appointed chief executive of the Building Corporation.

However, Head described her concern as a "double-edged sword."

"On the one hand, you want someone who cares about the area ... and who has a level of sophistication that would require a history of development," she said. "On the other hand, you don't want someone who has a motivation for self-dealing."

A double edged sword.

For what it's worth, I've been compiling campaign finance information for the Mayor's office and City Council. Some file electronically and some file on paper and the information is scanned. It's pretty tedious and not exactly user-friendly. I'm assuming the information online is accurate.

The Cummings family hits heavy.

Ray Nagin has accepted at least $22,500 from Sean, Donna, and John Cummings between 2002 and 2007.

Stacy Head has accepted at least $3,000 from Sean Cummings since 2006.

James Carter: at least $1,000 since 2006.

Cynthia Willard-Lewis accepted at least $20,000 from Donna Cummings, John Cummings, and the law firm Cummings, Cummings, & Dudenhefer.

Arnie Fielkow: at least $1,500 since 2006.

That's just City Council and the Mayor. It's a lot of loot, though not for the Cummings family. I'm not sure what it all means. Just passing it along.

Y'all should check out all the campaign info available. You never know what you might find.

UPDATE:

Schroeder has another thread here. His number for total Cummings family contributions is $47,500. I went back and took another look and can raise my number to at least $32,500.

12 comments:

jeffrey said...

Jesus who turned on the lights in here?

Also, I read this Head quote to Menckles

"On the one hand, you want someone who cares about the area ... and who has a level of sophistication that would require a history of development," she said. "On the other hand, you don't want someone who has a motivation for self-dealing."

And added... Soooo what you want ideally is a unicorn.

Leigh C. said...

What the hell? Where's that moody black???

Civitch said...

It's unconscionable that Cummings has been allowed to get this far without having any ethics review. He CLEARLY has a conflict of interest, especially since he's acquired additional property since his appointment! His claims to the contrary are insults to our collective intelligence.

mominem said...

Head is right, if you get someone who knows how the development process works they have a conflict of interest, so you end up getting people from community organizations, political or governmental backgrounds who are often predisposed to oppose almost any development or are actively hostile to economic incentives.

It is a difficult problem.

One example I occasionally point out is that the Vieux Carre Commission has some positions designated for architects, however no architect on the commission can accept a project in the Vieux Carre because that project would need to be approved by the Commission. Therefore the architects most qualified to sit on the Commission are often unwilling to because they would have to give up much of their practice.

The same concerns apply to a lot of appointments.

bayoustjohndavid said...

I can't find where, but I know that I've expressed similar thoughts to mominem before, I even made similar allowances for the fact Cummings and Nagin seem to be chummy --you wouldn't expect the mayor to appoint an enemy. However, that's reason for the press and the entire city council (not just the two members on the NOBC board) to pay more, not less, attention. Also, I can't find any record of when the current board members were appointed, but I believe that Oliver Thomas and Brenda Hatfield held the seats now held by Fielkow and Willard-Lewis last year -- when most of the riverfront stuff was green lighted.

You understated the contributions, but I'm not sure by how much. Both Cummings have a few companies. I wrote this a few weeks ago, with that in mind:

I was struck by the generosity of the Cummings family, and their various enterprises, as well as that of William Broadhurst. I wasn't particularly surprised to see John and Sean Cummings giving money to various city council members

Unfortunately, I can't remember which company (or companies) I noticed giving to which candidate(s).

bayoustjohndavid said...

I might be showing my ignorance here, but did this ever get resolved? That property wasn't included in the accompanying graphic of nearby properties owned by Cummings family members.

celcus said...

The problem with looking at campaign donations to establish some kind of "link" is that you basically find that nearly everyone with any sort of financial interest in the city has donated to several campaigns. That in an of itself does not equal corruption, and figuring out what is and isn't is, well, hard.

And I am not sure what constitutes property that is "close" to the development sites. Certainly, a lot is, and the TP highlight one such properety, but the TP graphics seemed to count anything to the river side of Broadmoor. Some of it is in the CBD. Is that really affected by the proposal?

And for the record, Cummings has hired local firms to handle nearly all his development projects.

bayoustjohndavid said...

"but the TP graphics seemed to count anything to the river side of Broadmoor."

Why mar a valid point with ridiculous exaggeration?

celcus said...

I can mar my argument if I want.

But, seriously. I think Cummings needs to recuse himself at some point. It's just that I can't figure out what that point should be.

E said...

This is a great thread so far.

BSJD, I know that I have undershot his campaign donations by thousands. My search was limited to Sean, Donna, and John Cummings as individuals.

With exception of Nagin, I didn't have records for anybody before 2006.

We know nothing of his contributions from various companies.

We don't know how the Cummings family has helped various candidates through other boards, organizations, etc.

Celcus, having now browsed thousands of campaign donations since 2006, I would argue that while many individuals and interests do donate to several candidates, they rarely donate to every candidate or to rival politicians. You might be interested to see the names that, like Cummings, surface again and again and again.

I would agree that right now, it's just a "link" and not kind of substantive chain.

I'd love everyone's help for that. Maybe here, in addition to this conversation, we can start listing companies or subsidiaries under direct control of Sean, John, or Donna Cummings. I, or anyone else, can then check the records for donations by those companies.

E said...

"so you end up getting people from community organizations, political or governmental backgrounds who are often predisposed to oppose almost any development or are actively hostile to economic incentives"

Mominem, this is an interesting point. But I think I'd disagree with it, or at least the underlying assumption within.

The "predisposition" of community people to oppose development projects is not something to avoid. It's something to embrace. There is a reason to be hostile toward development projects - they often ignore the actual needs of the community in favor of development that instead serves the interest of an economic elite.

By promising "jobs" (there is no shortage of available construction jobs in this city) and future tax revenue, (difficult to calculate), development projects get hammered through without taking into account the opportunity cost of all that up-front spending.

This city has immediate needs. There are huge quality of life issues that need to be addressed. If you build affordable housing, you'll create jobs and tax revenue too. If you fix roads you'll create jobs and tax revenue. If you give money to community organizations to rehabilitate historic buildings or to acquire land for gardens, you'll create jobs and enhance tax revenue. If you have a recycling program, there will be jobs. If you reopen public facilities such as pools and recreation centers, there will be jobs. Do we even have a parks department?

What about the quality of life of residents of this city? Shouldn't that be where our money goes right now?

I'm all for some large development projects, but I want them to serve the public interest. I think residents of the city should benefit in a tangible way. Just off the top of my head, I think this city needs a massive development project. I think we should knock down 1-10 and build a world class public transportation infrastructure.

Does the Cummings riverfront project really do anything for us? Or does it really just raise the property values of rich people that have maintained ownership of abandoned warehouses?

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