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Architectural visionary's incredible claims riddled with incredible questions, NC5 investigation finds

Paul Doherty has eyed deals with city of Nashville
Posted: 11:32 AM, Nov 02, 2020
Updated: 2020-11-26 01:17:13-05
Paul Doherty Speaking Circuit.png

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — On the speaking circuit, he's hailed as a visionary.

And, here in Nashville, Paul Doherty partnered with a Metro Council member in 2018 to try to push through a billion-dollar transit plan. His efforts to cut other deals with the city, using that Council member as a conduit, have continued into 2020.

But NewsChannel 5 Investigates has uncovered evidence that many of Doherty's incredible stories are riddled with incredible questions.

Doherty, a Memphis-based architect is president and CEO of The Digit Group. His partners in that venture, since at least 2017, include Metro Nashville Council member Robert Swope.

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Online videos, uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, show Doherty mesmerizing industry trade groups with extraordinary claims, including claims about what he says he's already doing here in Nashville.

In 2019, Doherty was introduced with great fanfare at the FDIC International firefighters conference as a "world-class innovator, designer and thinker" who is "literally changing the way that we look at quality of life."

Doherty claimed, in a 2018 interview, that "there’s not a lot of new cities going up. We actually own the majority of them."

He's even been interviewed on CNBC's Squawk Box, suggesting a world of autonomous vehicles where, "instead of stopping at Starbucks, how about if the Starbucks pods comes to you?" In another speech, he claimed he was negotiating with Starbucks to do just that.

In April 2018, right before Nashvillians began voting on former Mayor Megan Barry’s proposed transit plan, Swope introduced Doherty at a news conference to lay out a vision for an alternative plan using autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

"Quality and independence in transit become a reality for everyone in Nashville in a matter of two to five years," Doherty insisted.

The Doherty-Swope plan generated one day of headlines.

"The only question was whether or not we were going to do the Barry plan," said former Nashville Scene editor Steve Cavendish, who was one of the reporters who covered the 2018 transit debate.

Cavendish noted that Barry's plan was the only thing on the ballot.

"Everything was: is this a $9 billion plan, is this a $4 billion plan, how are we counting the money, how are we going to pay for this in the long run?"

But that didn’t stop Doherty from writing an article for an obscure trade magazine, claiming his plan had "captured the imagination of the people of the fast-growing city."

The article claimed that Nashvillians had chosen his company’s plan “by a 2-to-1 margin.”

"Nashville is proving that Smart Cities are not only real, but profitable," Doherty wrote.

That led to an industry award for innovation from the same publication for “receiving a mandate” from voters.

Swope's explanation?

"It's PR, ok? Public relations."

"I think that's sugarcoating a lie," Cavendish responded. "I don't think you can call something 'public relations' simply because you want something to be true."

As part of Doherty’s speaking engagements, he also has falsely claimed that Nashville is already implementing his plan.

At a 2018 conference at Georgia Tech, The Digit Group CEO claimed, "Nashville, Tennessee, which is going to be the first city in the world to have a free public transportation system based entirely on autonomous vehicles."

In a 2018 interview with an Atlanta-based YouTube channel, TechConnect, he claimed it was happening "all in the next three years.”

The interviewer exclaimed in response, "That's fascinating."

"As an architect, that’s kind of weird to be in the transportation business," Doherty answered.

"Elon Musk is doing it wrong. Sorry, Elon.”

And at the 2019 FDIC International Conference, he boasted, "We actually have dedicated autonomous roads that will be going through the city of Nashville."

But Nashville officials say there is no such autonomous vehicle project in the city - nor any plans to implement one.

Doherty ignored NewsChannel 5's repeated requests for comment to get his response to the questions raised by our investigation.

"The idea that somebody is peddling Nashville as being some sort of model or test project or some sort of pilot program, I haven't seen it on our streets," Steve Cavendish insisted.

"The fact that they are using Nashville in some sort of mythical way seems really shady."

Doherty-Swope relationship

Doherty's social media includes pics of him and the Metro Council member, Robert Swope, traveling the world together on business. Most recently, they have traveled to Greece together, supposedly meeting with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

As NewsChannel 5 Investigates previously reported, Doherty and Swope have continued to try to push their transit plan for Nashville within the last year.

Doherty also wanted Swope to get a letter from Mayor John Cooper about another proposed development "to get the operational cash flowing" for their project.

How and when the relationship developed is not exactly clear.

Swope gave NewsChannel 5 Investigates one timeline but, when confronted with contradictory information from the public record, he altered his version of events.

Swope claimed that, at some point, the government of China was so impressed with his own ideas about mass transit that they invited him to speak. The Metro Council member said he did not know how the government of China would have become aware of the thinking of someone in Nashville who makes his living in the video production industry.

It was at that conference in China where Swope claimed he met Doherty, "who is one of the most brilliant architects and furturists in the world, and we became fast friends and we partnered our companies."

In November 2017, Doherty was somehow invited to join President Donald Trump's November 2017 trade mission to China and South Korea, and the Memphis architect's social media posts reveal that Swope was at his side.

That came the year after Swope served as the Tennessee state chairman for Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, although it's not clear if there is a connection to his political role.

Swope's financial disclosures filed with the city of Nashville show he began receiving income from The Digit Group in 2017, although he did not disclose any income from the company on his state disclosures until this year.

The Metro Council member claims to be equal partners in The Digit Group, although that financial stake is not disclosed on any of his reports.

While Doherty’s social media posts do include pics where he said he was signing business deals in China, he and Swope have also continued to try, without success, to cut deals with the city of Nashville -- even as Doherty makes other questionable claims.

Among those questionable claims:

Featured on Forbes cover?

"We’ve been recognized now by Forbes magazine," Doherty claimed in the FDIC International speech.

"They put us on the cover and said we’re changing the world. That was very humbling.”

NewsChannel 5 Investigaties checked and could not find him on any Forbes cover at any time.

In fact, a spokesperson for Forbes confirms, "We checked our archives and can confirm that Paul Doherty has never been featured in print or on the cover of our magazine."

An online-only column repeated some of Doherty's claims, but those were never published in the print magazine itself.

Doherty did not respond to NewsChannel 5's questions about his claims to have been featured on the cover of Forbes.

Piezoelectric pioneer?

In his speeches, Doherty has claimed to be funding research through the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) on new piezoelectric technologies where, as people move over a special material, they generate electricity.

He claimed to have exclusive rights to use that technology, that it's even been installed it at Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium.

"We have it rolled out right now in the concession stands and bathrooms, but more importantly we are putting it on the playing field so that the Atlanta Falcons as they play are going to be keeping the lights on," Doherty told the Urban Land Institute.

In fact, spokespersons for both the Falcons and Georgia Tech say none of that is true.

Doherty has also claimed that piezoelectric technology has already been installed in roadways near Georgia Tech.

Georgia Tech provided the following statement:

"Paul Doherty has been a good partner in spreading the word and driving interest in piezoelectric technology.

"Up to this point, this connection has not included funding projects with GTRI, but funding has been discussed and could be something that happens in the future. There is no exclusive relationship, but there is mutual interest in raising awareness about this technology.

"As for specific projects, both the Mercedes Benz Stadium and roadway/interstate projects mentioned are ideas that have been planned extensively and pitched to the entities involved, but neither of them have been put in place or developed."

Doherty did not respond to NewsChannel 5's questions about his piezoelectric claims.

Jeddah Tower designer/builder?

Doherty, in various speeches and interviews, has claimed that he and The Digit Group have been key players in the construction of Saudi Arabia's Jeddah Tower, which aspires to be the tallest building in the world, calling it in one speech: "our tower."

"We’ll top out at somewhere around 252 stories," Doherty claimed in the Urban Land Institute speech, giggling: "I still don’t know why we are doing it, but we're doing it."

A spokesperson for the architect, Adrian Smith, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "I've checked with the Jeddah Tower team, and they have no record of Paul Doherty on the project in any respect."

Likewise, a spokesperson for the engineer Thornton Tomasetti said, "We have no knowledge of the individual or the company."

Efforts to reach the developer, the Jeddah Economic Company, were unsuccessful.

Construction on the Jeddah Tower began in April 2013.

The next year, during the Obama administration, Doherty somehow was invited to participate in a trade mission to the Middle East.

In a subsequent blog post for the U.S. Department of Commerce, Doherty noted that his company had "verbally agreed to 3D model the entire Kingdom Tower complex in our gaming engine."

His descriptions of his role would expand dramatically in the years ahead.

In the 2019 speech to FDIC International, Doherty showed a picture of the early stages of construction for the Jeddah Tower.

"This was our under-construction photograph," he said, adding another photo of a rising skyscraper. "And this is from a month ago. This monster’s coming up out of the ground.”

NewsChannel 5 Investigates captured a screenshot of that rising tower and ran it through Google's image search.

That photo was actually the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

In fact, construction on the Jeddah Tower stopped more than two years ago.

Doherty did not respond to NewsChannel 5's questions about discrepancies in his claims.

Other futuristic projects?

Doherty ended his 2017 presentation to the Urban Land Institute with a series of photos of futuristic buildings, calling it "examples of our work."

"These things are either under construction or shovel ready," he claimed, adding: "We are definitely one of those firms who are doing it differently."

But a reverse engine search located those exact same images on an art website page for Hugo Marentes, a Cancun-based architect whose work includes being a "3D concept designer for films and video games."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates reached out to Marentes.

"It's my work that he is using without my consent or even asking me," Marentes said in an email. "The projects he showed on the video are not under construction, and some of them were made for my design research."

Doherty did not respond to NewsChannel 5's questions about the photos.

Drone innovator?

In one video, Doherty boasts, "We also in Menlo Park have drones that sit in nests that are solar-powered that, when there's a fire, the local drone goes out and has two cameras -- one, almost like an eye in the sky, almost like the traffic helicopters for news reports."

He continued, "The other one is a heat sensor so that you know where the hotness of the flame is again before the firefighters get there, all of that data resides as a building permit."

Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that Doherty has no role in his department's drone program and the usage he describes is simply not possible right now under Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates continues to review other claims by Doherty.

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