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Candidate for mayor LaToya Cantrell talks with a panel of students during a debate with Desiree Charbonnet at Tulane University in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. Students asked questions of the candidates and represented Dillard University, Southern University New Orleans, Loyola University, Tulane University, University of New Orleans and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

New Orleans mayoral candidate LaToya Cantrell is calling for an ethics investigation of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro a day after his office announced it had forwarded allegations against her to the state Attorney General's Office.

Cannizzaro, a staunch backer of Cantrell's opponent, Desiree  Charbonnet, jumped into the center of an attack made against Cantrell on Thursday when the DA's Office, saying it was operating off an anonymous tip, referred a complaint that Cantrell — a city councilwoman — had used her city-issued credit card for personal spending to Attorney General Jeff Landry.

In an unusual move, Cannizzarro's office announced the referral, something the Cantrell campaign said was "an extraordinary effort to tilt the New Orleans mayoral race in favor of the candidate he has endorsed, Desiree Charbonnet." According to a news release from the Cantrell campaign, "The effort appears to be an abuse of power by the office of the district attorney."

Late Friday, Cannizzaro issued a statement saying it was nothing of the kind, and that he had referred the matter to the Attorney General's Office in an effort "to avoid the appearance of impropriety."

Cannizzaro spokesman Chris Bowman defended the office's public announcement of the referral, saying it was done in an effort to answer media queries about how a potential investigation into Cantrell's spending would be handled.

The anonymous complaint to Cannizzaro's office was based on documents the Charbonnet campaign had provided to local media. Those documents showed that Cantrell reimbursed the city for nearly $9,000 in charges she made with a taxpayer-funded credit card after she later determined the purchases were either personal or political in nature.

The testy debate comes at a time when Cannizzaro is angling for the city to restore a $600,000 budget cut that was imposed last year with the approval of the City Council including Cantrell. Cannizzaro has repeatedly assailed the City Council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu for the cut, which prompted him to cut back on a diversion program and victim services.

In an Oct. 16 interview, Cannizzaro said he met with Charbonnet before endorsing her to determine whether she would make his budget whole again.

Charbonnet has not committed to an exact dollar figure for his budget, Cannizzaro said. However, he does expect her to restore the office’s budget, he said. He said she was supportive of “adequate” funding, a message she drove home with Cannizzaro before he endorsed her in July.

“She said, ‘I can promise you that you will have adequate funding. You will not have any problems with me as your mayor,' " Cannizzaro said.

It was not immediately clear whether Cantrell had formally filed a complaint with the state Board of Ethics or if she was simply suggesting an investigation was warranted.

Karen Carvin Shachat, a consultant to the Cantrell campaign, said the campaign planned to file a complaint but that ethics rules prohibit people from disclosing that they have done so.  

The Cantrell camp said it would also be seeking copies of all communications between Cannizzaro's office and the Charbonnet campaign.

“I am surprised and disappointed that the district attorney is using the power of his office to help the candidate he has endorsed," Cantrell said in the news release.

She added: "The following is undeniable: The district attorney is an all-in supporter of Desiree Charbonnet. Bernard 'Bunny' Charbonnet, Desiree Charbonnet’s brother, has been on the payroll of the district attorney. Billy Schultz, who serves as District Attorney Cannizzaro’s political consultant, is also serving as a paid consultant to Desiree Charbonnet. I want the voters to know that none of these actions will distract me from running a campaign based on the real issues facing the voters of New Orleans.”

Bowman said the DA and his top aide "performed a preliminary review" of the materials on Cantrell before turning them over to Landry's office. But he said Cannizzaro "has neither taken any position nor made any statements regarding the validity of the allegations contained in the complaint. That is a matter that will be decided by the Louisiana Attorney General's Office."

Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this report.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​