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

In a highly unusual escalation of a political controversy in the New Orleans mayor's race, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro — a major backer of candidate Desiree Charbonnet — has formally and publicly referred allegations against her opponent, LaToya Cantrell, to the state attorney general.

A spokesman for the DA confirmed Thursday that an anonymous complaint about Cantrell's use of a city credit card, based on opposition research generated by the Charbonnet campaign, had been forwarded to Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry's office by the DA's top aide. 

Cannizzaro — who stood beside Charbonnet during her speech to supporters on the night of the Oct. 14 primary in which she came in second — then publicized his decision to forward the complaint, a move that is virtually unheard of. The office generally has a blanket policy against commenting on ongoing investigations.

Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for the office, said Thursday night that the decision to alert the media to the referral was in line with office policy.

"In light of numerous media reports in which people opined that the District Attorney's Office should recuse itself from any investigation that resulted from this matter, we believed that it was prudent to inform the public that it had," Bowman said.

When asked about the referral Thursday, Landry spokeswoman Ruth Wisher cited department policy. "Our office takes any and all complaints very seriously," she said. "As always, we will not comment as to the existence of any investigation."

Although the allegations in the anonymous complaint are based on an internal Charbonnet campaign document that was circulated to the media earlier this week, Charbonnet's political team denied any direct connection to the complaint.

"We did not, at least not as far as I know," have anything to do with it, said Kevin Stuart, a spokesman for the campaign. "I understand from watching the news that this was anonymously done."

Cantrell's camp said it clearly came from Charbonnet and cast the gambit as an improper use of Cannizzaro's office for political gain.

“This is emblematic of a campaign that has the support of DA Cannizzaro and is using the District Attorney’s Office for their own political advantage,” the Cantrell campaign said in a statement.

The complaint alleges that Cantrell, a city councilwoman, misused her government credit card. 

The New Orleans Advocate reported on some of the allegations Wednesday after the Charbonnet campaign provided the newspaper and other media outlets with opposition research on Cantrell's credit-card spending, which it says it obtained through public-records requests. 

The Advocate has requested original copies of those documents from the city.

The records provided by the Charbonnet campaign showed that Cantrell made about $8,950 in charges on her city-issued credit card that she later paid back after determining they were either personal or political in nature. Those reimbursements included a lump-sum payment of more than $4,400 that Cantrell made just after qualifying in the mayor's race.

Charbonnet campaign officials have also pointed to roughly $35,000 in other spending that they say Cantrell didn't properly document.

Graymond Martin, Cannizzaro's first assistant, sent a letter to Assistant Atty. Gen. Brandon Fremin saying the DA felt the need to pass along the complaint because he had endorsed Charbonnet in the mayor's race.

"While we find no reason to recuse this office, the heightened political season and the desire to avoid even the appearance of impropriety compels the District Attorney's Office to request the assistance of the Louisiana Attorney General's Office," Martin said.

The letter included a copy of a "forensic audit" provided by the complainant. That document mirrors what was provided to The New Orleans Advocate by Charbonnet's campaign.

Bowman said Martin's letter was sent Thursday. But it is dated Tuesday, a day before Charbonnet's campaign circulated copies of its analysis of Cantrell's spending to the media.

The letter was first reported by WWL-TV.

Charbonnet's camp cited a city policy on credit-card usage to bolster its claim that Cantrell did not properly document her use of the city credit card for various expenses, including restaurant and travel bills.

That policy, however, applies to the city's executive branch, not to the City Council. Cantrell's campaign and council administrators say her use of the credit card complies with the council's policy.

It is rare for prosecutors to consider or publicly contemplate charges against political candidates during active campaigns to avoid the appearance that the office is being used for political purposes.

Charbonnet's campaign has repeatedly referred to Cantrell's actions as illegal, both in discussions and in ads on social media. Some of her supporters and campaign operatives also floated the idea that Landry would prosecute the case, even before Cannizzaro announced the referral.

When Charbonnet's campaign was asked whether the unusual announcement suggested the campaign had called in a favor from an ally, Stuart said: "It’s not clear that that’s what’s happening. We have nothing to do with this; we have nothing to do with the complaint. If LaToya committed the crime, she should get justice."

Cantrell's campaign said the entire chain of events suggested a campaign in disarray after Charbonnet trailed Cantrell in the primary by 9 points.

"One of Desiree Charbonnet’s advisers, Billy Schultz, an ex-convict, has handled Leon Cannizzaro’s political campaigns, and Cannizzaro has a history of endorsing Schultz’s political clients," a statement from Cantrell's campaign said in part. "We believe this is the reason and the only reason for their request" to Landry's office. 

Schultz, a longtime confidant and adviser to Cannizzaro, served a year in prison roughly a decade ago after pleading guilty to federal tax charges.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​ | (504) 636-7432