New Orleans City Councilmember Oliver Thomas, who is sponsoring legislation to approve a five-year contract between the city and the production company of the controversial EMS reality show “Nightwatch” — for which he has previously done work  — said he no longer has a business relationship with the company, 44 Blue Productions.

Thomas has done work with at least one other 44 Blue Productions show, the equally controversial “Jailbirds,” a Netflix reality series filmed inside the city’s jail. But in an interview, Thomas stressed that it’s been years since he worked as a co-producer or consultant on Nightwatch or any other 44 Blue show. 

“I don’t have anything to do with it,” Thomas said of the show, which has been criticized as exploitative by some of his fellow councilmembers. 

Asked about his sponsorship of the legislation, which was deferred at last week’s council meeting, in light of his previous employment for the production company, a member of his staff noted that it did not originate with Thomas. He sponsored it at the request of Mayor LaToya Cantrell. 

The Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics prohibits an elected official from participating in a matter, such as the approval of a contract, where they have a substantial economic interest in its outcome. The official can only participate in debate on the issue if they disclose their conflict prior to the discussion, and prior to any vote, but they are not allowed to vote on the matter whatsoever.

“If they no longer have an economic interest, I don’t know if it would be covered,” by the law, said state Ethics Administrator Kathleen Allen. 

A short biography of Thomas, posted on the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center’s website, highlights his work as a co-producer for “Nightwatch.” 

And in 2019 and 2020, The Lens reported, Thomas worked as a consultant on the 44 Blue show “Jailbirds,” which followed female detainees housed inside the city jail. In 2020, then-Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman cut the production short after his legal counsel accused 44 Blue of violating its agreement with the jail by filming detainees using drugs without alerting staff. (Gusman also faced criticism for allowing the show to film from civil rights attorneys involved in the jail’s long-running federal consent decree, though his office denied the decision to halt filming was related to that.) Following the decision, Thomas tried repeatedly to urge the Sheriff’s Office to allow the show to restart, emails published by The Lens show. 

But Thomas’ state financial disclosures do not show any income from 44 Blue or for any other film production work since 2021 — the year before he assumed office. In his disclosure for that year, which he only filed in full earlier this month, he reported receiving a small income ($5,000 or less) from California-based Moving Pictures Services, for work on a movie set. 

Whether an elected official can sponsor a measure where they have a substantial economic interest is not specifically addressed in the law, Allen said. She added that she’s not sure if the state Board of Ethics has ever dealt with that situation. However, the comprehensive definition of “participate” under state ethics code may include the sponsoring of a measure. 

“It’s a broad term,” she said. “It covers public servants’ actions in their official capacity through approval, disapproval, decision recommendation, rendering of advice.” 

The Ethics Board has previously disapproved of Thomas’ employment outside of his seat on the council — last year, they issued an opinion saying he could not continue to be paid by WBOK-AM for his long-running public interest radio show because the station receives city money. Thomas and Equity Media, the company that owns WBOK, disputed the opinion and argued that the Ethics Board was overreaching. But the board’s opinion does not carry the force of law, and Thomas still hosts the weekday news show. 

While he said he’s no longer involved with the production of any 44 Blue shows, he has extensive experience in the entertainment industry, including a role on HBO’s “Treme,” where he played himself. 

‘Compelling television’

On Tuesday, a staffer in Councilmember Helena Moreno’s office told Verite that the “Nightwatch” contract, which was deferred last week, has now been placed on hold indefinitely at the recommendation of New Orleans EMS. 

The proposed agreement has reinvigorated criticism about the exploitative nature of “Nightwatch” and the issues it raises surrounding patient privacy and consent. Cantrell’s office declined to comment on the council deferral or the proposed contract itself, which states that the city “desires to increase positive public perception of NOPD and NOEMS” through Nightwatch. 

That explanation has been criticized by Moreno and JP Morrell, who have characterized the show as taking advantage of vulnerable people for entertainment. In an interview last week, Morrell said the show raises serious privacy and moral concerns, calling it “disaster-violence-drug porn.”

“There’s no public benefit to this,” Morrell said last week. 

And in a recent social media post, Moreno came out against the agreement. 

“This show doesn’t highlight our first responders, the shock factor is severely injured people. Some people aren’t even conscious and near death IN AMBULANCES w/ a crew filming.” 

Representatives from 44 Blue did not respond to requests for comment. But in an email to councilmembers obtained by Verite, 44 Blue CEO Rasha Drachkovitch said that the show, which has filmed for five seasons so far in New Orleans (and one season in Tampa) has resulted in increased EMS recruitment and an economic benefit to the city of more than $20 million, due in part to its hiring of local crew members. 

“It’s the love for their city and each other that makes for compelling television, not exploitative television,” Drachkovitch wrote. 

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Josie Abugov is an undergraduate fellow at Harvard Magazine and the former editor-at-large of The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. Abugov has previously interned for the CNN Documentary Unit...