A political hot potato appears to be headed toward Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who for the second time in as many weeks has been asked to investigate criminal allegations against a candidate for New Orleans mayor.
This time the anonymous complaint takes aim at former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, accusing her of improperly claiming a homestead exemption for the residence she once lived in with her ex-husband.
The complaint, which was distributed to the local news media, comes amid fresh attacks by the political action committee Not For Sale NOLA, which this week accused Charbonnet of "cheating New Orleans out of vital tax dollars" by holding an "unjustified homestead tax exemption on a property which has not been her home for at least three years."
However, Erroll Williams, the Orleans Parish assessor, said Wednesday that Charbonnet no longer receives the exemption, even though her name remains listed on the property's information on the assessor's website. "She doesn't receive one," he said. "Her ex-husband lives there and receives the full benefit of the exemption."
Kevin Stuart, a spokesman for the Charbonnet campaign, dismissed the allegations as "totally bogus." He called the complaint a "desperate attempt to change the subject away" from the complaint Cannizzaro received last week regarding Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell's alleged misuse of a city credit card.
The Advocate reported last week that Cantrell used her credit card to pay for at least $8,950 in personal or political expenses since she took office in late 2012, later reimbursing the city in several payments, sometimes months or years later.
Cannizzaro, who has endorsed Charbonnet, referred the complaint against Cantrell to the state Attorney General's Office but was excoriated by the councilwoman's campaign for publicly confirming the move.
Cantrell, in turn, called for an ethics investigation into Cannizzaro, describing his public comments as "an extraordinary effort to tilt the New Orleans mayoral race" in Charbonnet's favor.
Even if the homestead exemption claim appears to have no merit, Cannizzaro has an ethical duty to refer the allegations to the Attorney General's Office, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
"Because he has picked a side in this race, he pretty much is forced to recuse himself," Goyeneche said. "He's not going to be able to investigate it."
A Cannizzaro spokesman, Chris Bowman, declined to comment on the anonymous complaint, saying the office was closed Tuesday for All Saints' Day. "The District Attorney's Office is not going to comment on something it hasn't seen," he said.
NotForSaleNOLA, which has been attacking Charbonnet for weeks, sent a packet of records to local media on Tuesday claiming the former judge and parish recorder of mortgages has been claiming a property tax exemption she doesn’t deserve and that she "ducks property taxes." That claim appears to be false.
NotForSaleNOLA cited assessor's records to allege Charbonnet was claiming a homestead exemption on a house in the Lake Terrace subdivision near the University of New Orleans even though she is registered to vote and lives in an apartment on Magazine Street.
The state requires taxpayers to live in and register to vote at the property where they claim a homestead exemption.
Charbonnet no longer lives at the house in Lake Terrace, though her name still appears on the house's ownership records alongside that of Bryan K. Jefferson, her ex-husband. Orleans Parish civil court and land records show Charbonnet and Jefferson divorced in 2011 but never split their community property.
Jefferson provided an affidavit Tuesday stating that he lives in the house on Caldwell Drive in Lake Terrace and he pays the mortgage and taxes on it. He said he — not Charbonnet — receives the benefit of the $7,500 homestead exemption.
NotForSaleNOLA contends that Jefferson should receive only half of the exemption. But Tom Capella, the Jefferson Parish assessor, said in an interview that a person who gets divorced and maintains primary residence in the home can continue to claim the homestead exemption on community property that hasn't been divided.
Capella said it is odd for community property from a divorce finalized more than six years ago not to have been divided or settled yet. But he said it's permissible as long as the ex-spouse who no longer lives there doesn't try to claim another homestead exemption on other property.
Williams, the Orleans assessor, said there is no record of Charbonnet claiming a homestead exemption on any other property in the parish.