New Orleans City Councilman JP Morrell on Thursday (July 27) revealed that Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has been asking city workers to sign nondisclosure agreements. Morrell and Councilwoman Helena Moreno publicly questioned whether the agreements were being used to intimidate employees from reporting potential wrongdoing. 

Morrell provided Verite with a draft nondisclosure agreement for the city’s Office of Information Technology and Innovation dated June 27, 2023, which prohibits the signer from disclosing broad categories of “proprietary” and “confidential” information. Morrell also provided an internal powerpoint presentation on employee onboarding that appears to show NDAs as a standard part of the hiring process.

“My office has been in communication with several employees who are party to NDAs the city has with certain employees,” Morrell said at a Thursday council meeting. “And they have expressed frustration that those NDAs are often utilized to stifle their ability to communicate and report anything they’re seeing happen in the city.”

On Thursday afternoon, Morrell and Councilwoman Helena Moreno sent a letter to City Attorney Donesia Turner requesting a full itemized list “of every nondisclosure agreement your office knows to exist,” as well as the “purpose or intent behind having the employee sign the agreement.”

On Friday morning (July 28), after this article was first published, Turner responded to the council. “My office is not aware of the existence of any non-disclosure agreements within our City departments and thus do not have any copies of the same,” she wrote in an email to councilmembers.

The email appeared to contradict a previous statement from the Mayor’s Office admitting to using NDAs. Cantrell’s office did not immediately respond to requests for clarification.

The council also unanimously approved a resolution on Thursday to “support and affirm” an existing state law — authored by Morrell when he was member of the state Senate— that prohibits government bodies from signing nondisclosure contracts that would prevent people from reporting legal violations. 

“I know it seems like an odd resolution,” Morrell said. “I thought it was important to give [city employees] the cover that the council has your back if you have information that you need to get out there that shows something untoward happening. State law does in fact protect you.”

In a statement, Cantrell Press Secretary John Lawson confirmed the use of NDAs, and that Information Technology and Innovation employees are asked to sign them.

“To date, there has been no disciplinary action against an employee who refuses to sign this agreement,” Lawson said. “Additionally, the ITI onboarding process detailed in the PowerPoint was submitted to the [chief administrative officer’s] HR team for consideration. No decision has been made to formalize this process across the city.”

Cantrell previously came under criticism for the use of nondisclosure agreements in early 2018, following her successful run for mayor, when it was reported that members of her transition team had been asked to sign them.

The administration was also sued by two city workers in 2021 over a social media policy that severely limited city employee use of social media. The administration settled the case and walked back the policy last year.

‘Intimidation factor’

At Thursday’s meeting, Morrell and Moreno questioned why the city would need to have nondisclosure agreements with city employees at all. 

“I’m just wondering why the city of New Orleans as a public government body would actually have anybody sign an NDA just to work at the city of New Orleans,” Moreno said at the meeting. “I think it’s a little bit of an intimidation factor to prevent employees from trying to let us know, or anyone know, that something is potentially wrong in their department.” 

Lawson said that information technology employees are asked to sign NDAs because “ITI is responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of all electronic city data.”

Morrell and Moreno on Thursday both conceded that there is information accessible to city employees that has to be protected, such as employee social security numbers. At the same time, there are already a number of state laws on the books that prevent the improper release of non-public government information. 

“It’s already covered by state and federal law, so it’s unnecessary,” Morrell told Verite in an interview.

Morrell said there could be a good justification for NDAs he isn’t aware of, but that the justification needs to be spelled out by the administration in a “public-facing policy.”

The only nondisclosure agreement Morrell is aware of was specifically for the ITI Department, which has been at center of recent controversy and several investigations into contract-fixing allegations related to the city’s now-abandoned “smart cities” project.

Verite contacted Christopher Wolff, an ITI staffer intimately involved in last year’s “smart cities” project, which was abandoned amid allegations of bid-rigging. Wolff responded through his attorney, Michael Kennedy.

“While Mr. Wolff has no comment on this particular matter, my client and I are both in favor of complete transparency at all levels of government and certainly support the scaling back and/or complete discontinuation of the use of NDAs,” Kennedy said in a statement. 

Morrell said he wanted to find out how widespread the use of NDAs is.

“I’m wondering if other departments have NDAs,” Morrell said.

He said that it will be vital to understand how the agreements are explained to employees. Morrell, a lawyer, said that there are a lot of nuances and limitations to what an NDA can legally prohibit, but more important is what they believe they are prohibited from doing, and what the consequences will be. 

“When you’re told you can’t say things, if you’re not a lawyer, you really don’t understand that is not true,” Morrell said. 

Morrell said one of the employees he spoke to was under the impression he was subject to two NDAs, one written and one verbal. 

“Of course there’s no such thing as a verbal NDA,” Morrell said. “They don’t know that’s not the way the law works.”

Morrell said that based on the three people he spoke to, it doesn’t appear that the city is giving employees a clear understanding of the limitations of the NDAs, or the fact that public employees are protected by several different whistleblower laws that allow them to report wrongdoing regardless of agreements they have signed. 

“When they were onboarding people with NDA, they didn’t express what an NDA covered and what it didn’t cover,” Morrell said. “And I don’t know if that miscommunication is intentional or not.”

During Thursday’s meeting, Morrell said that if the miscommunication was intentional, “that is public intimidation. It is an attempt to curtail employees from reporting wrongdoing and it’s something that really should be addressed.”

Morrell said that employees should also be made clear that “the NDA doesn’t protect you from criminal wrongdoing and failure to report.”

“Public officials shouldn’t sign NDAs anyway, because by virtue of being a public official, if you see things or are aware of things, you should always have the ability to disclose,” he said.

Note: This story has been updated with a response, from City Attorney Donesia Turner, to the City Council’s request for nondisclosure agreements signed by city employees.

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Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...