After hearing oral arguments this week, a judge is set to decide on a lawsuit that has stalled the redevelopment of New Orleans’ former World Trade Center building.
A company called Two Canal Street Investors Inc. filed the lawsuit, which accuses city officials of violating state law in how they went about selecting a contractor for the $360 million project. Two Canal argues that its proposal should have been chosen because it offered the city the most money in lease payments.
The winning developers say the losing company’s owner, Stuart “Neil” Fisher, simply is a con man looking for a quick check. They point out that he swooped in and bought the company for $10 after its bid was rejected. And city officials say the quasi-public agency that acts as landlord for the property actually is exempt from the state law that Two Canal is citing.
Oral arguments Wednesday hewed mainly to the points spelled out in briefs submitted earlier to Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Tiffany Chase.
In the meantime, state lawmakers are expected to take final action Friday on a bill backed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu that would more explicitly spell out the exemption from state bidding law that his administration says applies to the World Trade Center project. That bill has cleared the Senate and is up for a final House vote.
A state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruling Wednesday prevented Chase from considering a separate motion to sanction Two Canal and dismiss its case because Fisher did not show up in Louisiana for a deposition Chase had ordered.
A three-judge panel ruled that Fisher, who is from Florida, did not have to come to the state for the deposition. However, Fisher attended Wednesday’s hearing, his first court appearance since the litigation began.
He seemed ready to go to war with his detractors. “I object to Mr. Herman’s highly unrepresentative testimony,” he said of attorney Russ Herman, who represents Carpenter and Co. and Woodward Design + Build, the firms chosen to redevelop the vacant office tower. Chase warned him that he could not speak on a case to which he was not a party.
He also accused Chase of being biased in her past rulings and of asking Carpenter and Woodward attorneys for donations for her campaign for a 4th Circuit Court of Appeal seat. She ruled that she has been fair but said she would have another judge decide whether she should recuse herself.
Litigation over the project has continued for more than a year.
The bill up for action Friday would provide that similar lawsuits would be settled more quickly in the future. It also would spell out criteria that public benefit corporations should consider when awarding public leases.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.