NEW ORLEANS — There are questions about whether longstanding financial concerns with the $85 million Hard Rock Hotel project could have compromised safety in its design or construction before the partially built structure collapsed Saturday, killing three workers.
WWL-TV first exposed graft by the original lead developer on the project, Praveen Kailas, in 2012, and based on the station's reporting, federal prosecutors charged Kailas with conspiracy and theft of public funds.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison in December 2013. Judge Sarah Vance had harsh words for Praveen's father, Mohan, during the sentencing, stating from the bench that he had let his son take the fall for him.
Mohan Kailas remained the lead developer on the 1031 Canal Street development project. It started as a multi-use retail, hotel and condominium complex, and Praveen Kailas convinced the City Council to grant special waivers to build it to nearly 200 feet in 2011.
But Kailas had several financial problems and the project screeched to a halt for years after the original Woolworth building was demolished. In 2014, the city sent demand letters to Kailas for more than $300,000 in unpaid permitting and inspection fees.
In 2018, an agreement was announced with Hard Rock International to make it into a Hard Rock Hotel instead, with 18 stories and a rooftop bar and pool deck.
Praveen Kailas and his brother Naveen are no longer partners in the development, known as 1031 Canal Development LLC. It’s a partnership between Mohan Kailas; Denzel Clark, president of the prime contractor on the project, Citadel Builders; and Todd Trosclair of All-Star Electric.
WWL-TV went to Kailas' office Monday, but when he saw the news camera he ran away.
Later Monday, a spokesman for 1031 Canal Development LLC sent the following statement:
"The highest priority of the development team is the concern for the families involved. While there are many questions that are unanswerable at this juncture, our prayers and sympathies are with the good men and women who have been affected. The development team, 1031 Canal Development LLC, is working with authorities to monitor and assist in recovery activities. 1031 Canal Development LLC is a development company and does not conduct construction or engineering. We thank the first responders for their quick actions to assist those in need."
There were also concerns about whether concrete poured on the top floors had been given enough time to cure. Citadel spokesman Brian Trascher said that's a question Citadel's engineers could answer after the last body trapped in the rubble is recovered and the structure and cranes are stabilized.
Trascher said the chief engineer for Morrow Cranes, the crane operator on the project, has come to New Orleans to look at how best to stabilize the building and to help investigators. He also promised to make engineers available for interviews to address what happened, but said they are now huddled at the incident command site on Canal Street, trying to deal with the unstable building and cranes.
Trascher said Citadel has had a spotless safety record up to this point.
"Citadel has been in business for 16 years," he said. "We’ve never had an OSHA violation, we’ve never had a lost-time accident. This is something that’s completely new for us. Everything we could have done to ensure safety, we did."