NEW ORLEANS, La. -- After six years of asking residents to hook their private surveillance cameras up to his private network of crime cameras at no cost to the homeowner, last month ProjectNOLA founder Bryan Lagarde started asking people to pony up a monthly maintenance fee for the group’s video monitoring, leaving residents and neighborhood groups scrambling to either find the cash or record the video themselves.
Lagarde started sending emails out to all of his crime camera hosts last month telling them the non-profit network of cameras can’t afford to transfer all of the cameras to new servers to continue recording and monitoring them after his original servers began to crash in January.
The move has potentially left hundreds of cameras dark, including some in the French Quarter.
With 501c3 ProjectNOLA so closely tied to Lagarde’s for-profit surveillance camera business, CCTV Wholesalers, his pleas for donations and now monthly fees raise questions about whether ProjectNOLA is purely a public service.
Caught on camera
Three years ago, a surveillance camera captured the chaos that ensued after two men opened fire into a crowd at a second-line parade on Mother’s Day 2013. Nineteen people were either pierced by bullets or injured in the mayhem.
Daniel bell is lucky he wasn't one of them.
“We thought we'd walk over and check out the parade. Instead, turned and ran back because we heard all the gunfire,” Bell said.
Just days before the shooting, Bell, a general contractor, bought a historic home a block from the shooting scene. It's in the gentrifying neighborhood where the 7th Ward meets the Marigny and crime is an unfortunate reality.
After the Mother's Day shooting, Bell looked to buy some electronic eyes for added security from ProjectNOLA.
“We heard about them through the neighborhood organization and we had heard that there was possibly a break that was given to people in certain neighborhoods. That didn’t happen,” Bell said.
After the mass shooting, ProjectNOLA founder Bryan Lagarde started a crowdfunding campaign to raise $4,500 to put 10 of his crime cameras in the neighborhood.
The Indiegogo posting created by Lagarde says the cameras cost $450 each including installation. Lagarde says ProjectNOLA is a 501c3 tax-exempt organization, but what the posting doesn’t say is ProjectNOLA buys its cameras from Lagarde’s for-profit business CCTV Wholesalers.
Lagarde sets the price for the cameras
We found what sources close to ProjectNOLA say are similar cameras to what Lagarde uses for $78.50 on eBay. Installers typically charge $150 dollars to put them up. Add to that a POE injector and cables at an estimated cost of $10 and that puts the total cost for an installed camera at $228.50, nearly half of the $450 Lagarde said ProjectNOLA would pay in his fundraising pitch.
“When cameras were purchased, on the rare occasion the cameras were purchased from CCTV Wholesalers, we're probably talking less than 100 cameras out of 1800, we sold them well under fair market value,” the ProjectNOLA founder said in an interview.
Project NOLA is headquartered in the same Harahan building, 1308 Dealers Ave., as CCTV Wholesalers.
They share internet and employees. CCTV Wholesalers workers pull all the video in response to police requests. The two corporations also share office space.
Lagarde said a $5,000 donation from the Red Dress Run allowed him to remodel the building creating a bigger room for computer monitors for ProjectNOLA.
The two corporations are also linked closely on the web. CCTV Wholesalers’ homepage advertises the sale of “ProjectNOLA” cameras.
Despite the close connections, Lagarde insists his for-profit company is not making money off of ProjectNOLA.
“Positively not. We haven't made any money from ProjectNOLA,” Lagarde said.
While Lagarde insists he sells the ProjectNOLA cameras for below fair market value, people often buy more than just that one camera for their home, money paid to CCTV Wholesalers.
“You start questioning whether that organization is really operating for the benefit of a private individual and not for the public,” said Philip Hackney, an LSU Law School Professor and former attorney for the IRS.
“We have a muddling of the for-profit and the non-profit and you wonder, who is this really being operated for? Is it being operated to generate funds for the for-profit business and it's using the halo of the nonprofit or is it really about the nonprofit?”
While Hackney says it's clear that the service ProjectNOLA provides giving video to police benefits the public, the fact that Lagarde only has his wife and his father on ProjectNOLA's Board of Directors raises questions, including whether the nonprofit is getting the best deal by buying cameras from CCTV Wholesalers.
“The question becomes are individuals in the nonprofit that are independent making that choice? From what I can tell, they're not,” Hackney said.
When asked about whether Lagarde should have a more independent voice on ProjectNOLA’s board, he replied, “If we were receiving donations from elsewhere, then that would be a legitimate concern.”
Despite the fact that Lagarde says his fundraising efforts have been largely unsuccessful, ProjectNOLA has received thousands in donations over the years.
In 2013, the Westway Group LLC donated $10,000 to ProjectNOLA for 40 cameras in the Leonidas neighborhood.
Restaurants in Mid-City held a handful of fundraisers for the nonprofit in recent years, donating a portion of their proceeds to ProjectNOLA.
And despite Lagarde’s claim that CCTV Wholesalers has only sold less than a hundred of the cameras on the ProjectNOLA, other public announcements indicate otherwise, including two City Council members who have given thousands of dollars in Harrah's Casino grants to neighborhood groups that used that money to buy ProjectNOLA cameras from CCTV Wholesalers.
In April, Lagarde started a Go Fund Me page asking for donations so he could continue monitoring the cameras in the French Quarter. He was asking for $12,000 but only raised $500.
By early May, Lagarde posted on Facebook that many of the French Quarter cameras weren’t being monitored, asking for more donations to get their feeds migrated over to a new server.
Lagarde then started sending out the notices to his camera hosts telling all of them they would have to start paying a monthly maintenance fee of ten bucks a camera because his oldest servers were starting to crash.
In an interview, without specifying which ones, Lagarde said he has continued recording key locations in the French Quarter, but others are cut off.
After years of assuring his hosts and the public that ProjectNOLA would monitor the cameras for free, Lagarde said he doesn’t feel like has gone back on his word.
“How can I possibly continue recording this when we're out of money,” he asked.
The addition of new monitoring fees has left neighborhood groups, such as Lakeshore and Faubourg St John, that bought ProjectNOLA cameras from CCTV Wholesalers, scrambling to either find the funds to pay ProjectNOLA, or buy digital video recorders to record the footage themselves, not to mention private homeowners like Bell.
While Lagarde says the steady stream of membership fees is going directly to ProjectNOLA to keep the funded cameras running.
“No way, shape or form have we benefited financially from running ProjectNOLA,” Lagarde insisted.
Over the years, Lagarde says ProjectNOLA’s footage has helped the NOPD in 50 homicide investigations.
He is currently looking to expand into other cities.
Correction: A previous version of the story and video listed Legarde's daughter as a member of the board; she is not a board member. Legarde, his wife and his father comprise ProjectNOLA's Board of Directors.