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Leon Cannizzaro speaks during the press conference in New Orleans on December 12, 2016.

Advocate staff photo by SOPHIA GERMER

New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro disclosed Monday that he took the rare step of paying an outside attorney to weigh in on the propriety of the DA's handling of an anonymous criminal complaint against mayoral candidate LaToya Cantrell.

Last week, Cantrell attacked Cannizzaro for publicly announcing that he was forwarding to the state Attorney General's Office allegations that she has misused her public credit card as a member of the City Council.

She accused the DA, who is a prominent backer of her election rival, Desiree Charbonnet, of using his office to try to influence the election.

On Monday, Cannizzaro's office released a letter by R. Gray Sexton, the former longtime general counsel of the Louisiana Ethics Board, offering a full-throated defense of Cannizzaro's action.

The DA acknowledged after releasing the opinion that Sexton billed him about $1,000 for offering his view. A spokesman said Cannizzaro planned on paying Sexton personally, not with public money.

The opinion, however, did not directly address whether Cannizzaro's office should have publicly announced that he was passing along the allegations. It was a highly unusual move for the DA and one that opened him to accusations of bias, considering the upcoming election and the fact that Charbonnet's campaign made the credit card allegations first.

Sexton wrote, “You managed this matter in the most honorable and fair-minded way, while achieving your dual objectives of your public and statutorily mandated responsibility to report any alleged wrongdoing to the proper authorities and upholding the integrity of your office."

The letter is the latest salvo in an ongoing word of words between Charbonnet and Cantrell over the latter’s use of her council credit card.

Last week Charbonnet’s campaign released public records and an analysis showing that Cantrell used the taxpayer-funded credit card for nearly $9,000 in personal expenses. She later reimbursed the city in a series of payments, sometimes months or even years later.

She reimbursed more than $4,400 in a lump-sum payment just days after qualifying to run for mayor.

At about the same time that news of the credit card payments surfaced, someone made an anonymous complaint to the District Attorney’s Office about them. Cannizzaro’s office passed the complaint on to Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry, citing the district attorney’s public endorsement of Charbonnet.

In an unusual maneuver, the DA’s Office also publicized its decision to forward the case to the attorney general. Parish prosecutors generally decline to comment on ongoing investigations.

Cantrell's campaign said the reimbursements were made because the councilwoman regularly checked her statements and reimbursed the city in cases where there could be a question about whether the expense was personal or professional.

In response to questions raised by Charbonnet's campaign about a lack of documentation showing that some of her other expenses were related to her council duties, Cantrell's camp has noted that such documentation is not required by City Council policies.

Cantrell's campaign said the announcement of the referral was "an extraordinary effort to tilt the New Orleans mayoral race in favor of the candidate (Cannizzaro) has endorsed, Desiree Charbonnet."

Sexton’s letter does not address directly whether the district attorney should have announced the complaint, rather than simply referring it to the Attorney General's Office.

In an interview, Sexton said he was not asked to weigh in on the propriety of announcing the referral. However, he said, "it's not against the law."

His letter does give Cannizzaro’s entire decision-making process a clean bill of health.

“In my opinion, based on my 50 years of experience and knowledge of custom and usage, that you and your office are in complete compliance with all aspects of relevant and controlling law,” Sexton said.

Cannizzaro's spokesman said in a statement that the letter proved he had acted correctly.

"This letter (from Sexton) was not sought to gain an advantage in a political campaign. The letter was sought to demonstrate that this office has acted ethically despite political accusations to the contrary," spokesman Chris Bowman said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432