Ever since last month's runoff, New Orleanians have been waiting for word of incoming mayor LaToya Cantrell's first big hire.
Now we know. It's not her second-in-command, or a new police chief or leader of the troubled Sewerage & Water Board. It's a lawyer.
And not just any lawyer. Facing what's shaping up as an aggressive criminal investigation by Attorney General Jeff Landry, Cantrell hired herself an a-lister named Billy Gibbens, a former federal prosecutor whose past clients included former Saints player and admitted rapist Darren Sharper and trash magnate Fred Heebe.
Cantrell should have good representation. When the A.G. is gunning for you, it's hard to look good.
But if Cantrell's got some things to answer for, so does Landry.
This is a guy with a history of picking fights for maximum effect. He frequently tangles with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards over social issues, such as gay rights, that play to his conservative Republican base. He also regularly criticizes largely Democratic New Orleans over how the city polices itself.
An attorney for New Orleans Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell is fighting a bid by state Attorney …
The investigation that Landry's office has launched is the direct outgrowth of opposition research by Cantrell's vanquished opponent Desiree Charbonnet, specifically allegations that Cantrell misused her City Council credit card. Cantrell reimbursed the city roughly $9,000, including more than $4,000 after she qualified to run for mayor. While the Charbonnet campaign claimed the reimbursement was essentially an admission of guilt, Cantrell said it showed she was being careful to separate out personal and public expenses, even if it was after the fact.
Cantrell emerged from the scandal looking careless at best, but the idea that she should be subject to criminal investigation has always carried the whiff of politics.
In fact, the original tip arrived in District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office even before the credit card information hit the news, according to the date on a referral to Landry's office (the office later claimed that was a mistake). Cannizzaro, an avid Charbonnet supporter, recused himself, but not without letting the complaint's existence be known and generating damaging headlines.
Landry ran with it. He issued subpoenas and demanded that every criminal judge in Orleans Parish step aside. Gibbens is scheduled to oppose that motion in court Friday.
All this is within Landry's purview, but it sure looks like he's acting with undue haste.
For one thing, he's getting ahead of the state legislative auditor, who is also looking into the matter. Legislative auditor reports can be damning, and have in the past teed up public corruption prosecutions.
New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell has spent more on her city credit card than he…
But the office received information at the same time Landry did, and — this is important — is looking into the whole council, while Landry only seems to be targeting Cantrell. Public records released during the campaign showed that Cantrell charged more on her credit card than her peers did, but did not use it in a substantially different way. Nor did any member exceed the council's per-office allowance for non-salary spending.
Yes, the council's policies and documentation requirements are lax and should be tightened, but it's a long way from sloppiness and even arguably questionable spending to criminality.
And yes, maybe there's more to find, and Landry or the legislative audit will find it. Nobody can say for sure.
But right now, Landry apparently only knows what the voters did when they chose Cantrell by more than 20 percentage points.
Electoral victories don't determine whether someone broke the law, but give those voters credit putting things in perspective. New Orleanians have seen this sort of thing before.
They've also seen Landry in action, which is reason enough to reserve judgment.