New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell has spent more on her city credit card than her colleagues, but the types of purchases she made and the way she handled those public funds were not significantly out of line with other council members, a review of the documents shows.
Cantrell, a candidate for mayor in the Nov. 18 runoff, is the only council member to have made significant reimbursements to the city for some of her spending, sometimes years after the fact. And she used her card for travel more often than other members but was not the most frequent flier on the council.
A lax City Council policy governing the use of credit cards meant that neither Cantrell nor most of her colleagues regularly noted the official purpose of their expenditures, following rules that required them only to produce receipts.
Based on an initial New Orleans Advocate analysis of hundreds of credit card receipts from the last four years, all the council offices used the cards for a variety of spending, ranging from paper clips and toner for printers to meals, conference registrations, flights and hotels.
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Credit card use exploded as a campaign issue two weeks ago when Cantrell’s runoff opponent, Desiree Charbonnet, launched a broadside alleging that Cantrell improperly spent taxpayer dollars.
The allegations have dominated the campaign since then, largely fueled by Charbonnet's attacks on Cantrell’s reimbursements, which Charbonnet alleges show public money had been spent for personal purposes, and her general travel.
Cantrell and her team have said her $8,900 in reimbursements, about half of which came as she launched her mayoral campaign, represent an effort to ensure spending that fell into "gray areas" was not borne by the taxpayers and that her trips were all for public purposes related to her office.
Overall, Cantrell and staff members who had access to her credit card spent more than $100,000 since she took office in 2013. During roughly the same time period, her colleagues and their offices used their credit cards for anywhere from a bit less than $25,000 to nearly $75,000 each.
The credit cards do not represent the full amount each office spent during that time. They are one of several ways council members can spend the $30,000 each year that is given to each office as discretionary funds and that may be used for any public purposes the offices see fit.
The entire council, in a joint statement Thursday, defended the use of credit cards by their offices.
“The purpose of a City Council office ‘other operating’ budget and council member access to a credit card is to allow the purchase of items and services they see as necessary to the administration of their office,” according to the statement.
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“These purchases are at the discretion of each council member and include but are not limited to various supplies and furnishings, to invest in government training and professional development expenses, and to conduct constituent outreach and communications as each council member sees fit.”
For the most part, council offices spent money on mundane items. Receipts show dozens of trips to Office Depot for supplies or Sam’s Club for coffee, office snacks and other items. Bigger-ticket purchases, including computers, also appear in the receipts.
Overall, Councilwoman Susan Guidry and her staff put the least amount on their credit cards, racking up less than $25,000 since 2013. Councilman Jared Brossett and his staff have spent about $32,500 in his first term in office, while Councilwoman Stacy Head and her employees spent about $44,000 during that time period and Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey’s office spent about $39,300.
Councilman Jason Williams and his staffers spent about $73,300, and Councilman James Gray’s office topped the list, aside from Cantrell, with about $74,400 in spending.
In the council’s statement, the members noted that they are not bound by the purchasing rules that Mayor Mitch Landrieu has imposed for the executive branch.
Cantrell’s reimbursements for some of her expenditures have been the focus of the Charbonnet camp’s attacks. And from the records, she was one of the few council members to pay back money to the city.
Only a handful of reimbursements from Guidry and Williams were recorded in the records reviewed by the Advocate.
Guidry reimbursed the city $143 for the cost of a coffee maker and provided payment from the Greater New Orleans Foundation covering $1,026 in spending on a trip to Houston. Many of Cantrell’s reimbursements also included payments or grants from outside agencies that covered the cost of her trips.
Williams reimbursed about $217 for in-room movies at a hotel, expenses related to Satchmo Summerfest, a beer, a purchase on iTunes and a charge by a staffer.
The attacks against Cantrell have also cited the lack of detailed descriptions for her spending in the credit card files. But her policies in that regard were the rule rather than the exception.
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Notes explaining the reason for expenses are few and far between in the records and, even when included, typically are vague descriptions such as “lunch meeting” or “thank you gifts” that do little to shed light on whether a purchase or a meal was a public or private matter.
Of the seven council members, only Brossett was meticulous about documenting his expenses, scrawling the reasons for each purchase at the top of his receipts, which he provided for meal purchases during lengthy council meetings, professional development trips he attended and similar purchases.
Williams was less diligent, providing, as the policy requires, receipts for his flights, hotel stays and other spending, but not always spelling out how a particular trip was in fact related to his work on the council. Among the expenses for which no reason was provided was a flight to Beijing, China.
The council members defended such travel, saying in their statement that the training and outreach that often happen on such trips are needed for members to do their jobs. The policy also is clear about what not to purchase, they said.
”While there is always room for policy and practices to be reviewed and updated, it is important to note that this council has consistently spent less than its allocated budget and returned dollars to the general fund,” the statement said.
Most council offices, with the exception of Head’s, took at least some trips. Ramsey and Gray regularly attended a conference for retail developers in Las Vegas along with staffers.
Williams and his employees were frequently on the road, spending $45,200 on travel, conference fees and similar items since he was elected in 2014.
The campaign may prompt changes in the council’s policies.
After Charbonnet’s attacks on Cantrell began, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro — a Charbonnet backer — announced his office had forwarded an “anonymous” complaint about her credit card use to Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry.
The state Legislative Auditor’s Office has also asked for council spending records.
Council members noted that they have cut their own budget in recent years, from $40,000 to $30,000, and rarely spent the entirety of their budgets.
“We continue to cooperate with all requests for disclosures of our use of taxpayer dollars,” according to the statement. “As elected officials and public servants, we hold that transparency is the base standard by which we conduct ourselves.”
Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this report.