Attorney General Jeff Landry's office wants more than LaToya Cantrell's City Council credit-card records as he launches a probe into New Orleans' first female mayor-elect.
He also has secured a subpoena for Cantrell's personal financial records, a move that Cantrell's attorney wants stopped, calling the bid by Landry's office "harassing" and "irrelevant."
A motion unsealed Friday by Criminal District Court Judge Laurie White shows that Cantrell suspects Landry's investigation is "nothing more than an intrusive and harassing witch-hunt by a political opponent."
White agreed Friday to unseal that motion to throw out the Landry subpoena that seeks personal financial records, and other legal filings related to the probe, at the behest of The Advocate, which filed a motion urging the unsealing. She also declined after a morning hearing to recuse herself or every other judge in the courthouse from legal matters stemming from the investigation recently opened by Landry.
That investigation, Landry's office acknowledged in one motion, may extend further than Cantrell's alleged misuse of her City Council credit card.
State prosecutors, who have argued that none of the judges at Tulane and Broad should oversee the matter for a host of reasons, indicated they will appeal White's ruling on the recusals.
"I am neither surprised nor deterred by today's hearing," Landry said in a statement. "We will appeal and continue our fight to end public corruption in Louisiana."
White set a Jan. 3 hearing on the motion by Cantrell's lawyer, Billy Gibbens, to quash the court orders for personal bank records tied to Cantrell. The subpoenas Landry's office secured were served on the banks that hold the records, not on Cantrell personally, Gibbens said.
The motion says Cantrell believes that one of the subpoenas "requests personal financial information and is not limited to official mayoral or City Council credit-card accounts or purchases." She considers those records to be "private and confidential," the motion says.
Ever since last month's runoff, New Orleanians have been waiting for word of incoming mayor LaToya Cantrell's first big hire.
Those arguments were set aside for later as Assistant Attorney General Matthew Derbes ticked off several reasons Friday why White and her colleagues on the criminal court bench all should be recused.
Among them: Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell, the 13th judge in the courthouse who works closely with the 12 district judges, is Cantrell's father-in-law.
Derbes also noted that Criminal District Court gets a substantial amount of funding from City Hall -- some $3 million this year -- and that Cantrell as mayor will preside over the city's budgeting process.
The prosecutor also cited the fact that five district judges refused to sign the subpoenas when approached by Landry's investigators. The one that did eventually sign them, Judge Camille Buras, later recused herself from the matter. In part, Buras cited the potential that Judicial Adminstrator Rob Kazik could be called to testify over an allegation raised by Cantrell that Landry's office had leaked the existence of the subpoenas to The Advocate.
Finally, Derbes argued that prosecutors need to protect their investigation, future witnesses and officers.
"We're not asking to recuse Your Honor because you don't like peanut butter or you don't like cats," Derbes told the judge. "You have a photograph with Ms. Cantrell's father-in-law in the hallway of the courthouse."
Gibbens, however, argued that the reasons given by state prosecutors were "disingenuous," since Landry's investigators saw fit to come to the same court to secure the subpoenas in the first place.
Derbes insisted that the request to recuse the whole court was based on Cantrell's motion to quash the subpoenas, but White wasn't having it.
“You got what you wanted from Criminal District Court, is that right?” she said of the subpoenas. “So after you got what you want, you then want the whole court to be removed?”
White insisted that only Buras has formally recused herself from the matter.
Still, Landry's office said five of the 12 judges -- not including Harry Cantrell -- begged out of signing the subpoenas before Buras did so on Nov. 27.
Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson "refused to even look at the documents" and cited a conflict. Judge Franz Zibilich said he had concerns about whether he had jurisdiction. White was gone.
The investigators then went to Judges Benedict Willard, Karen Herman and Darryl Derbigny, all of whom took a pass.
State agents then approached Buras, who chose to sign the subpoenas, then recused herself days later.
With the exception of Buras, "none of the judges recused themselves, because this isn't a matter that's actually a case," White said.
"They refused to look at documents because -- not in their defense or even as an excuse -- we really don't need to look for work around here."
White said state investigators took it upon themselves to upend the court's usual process by skipping past Magistrate Court -- assuming a conflict because of Harry Cantrell's presence there -- before going in search of a willing judge.
The subpoenas relate to a probe that Attorney General's Office recently opened into Cantrell's use of a public credit card during her ongoing tenure on the City Council. During the mayoral campaign, Cantrell's runoff opponent, Desiree Charbonnet, highlighted about $9,000 in expenses Cantrell initially billed to city taxpayers and later reimbursed.
Charbonnet said the reimbursements amounted to an admission that the spending was improper and possibly illegal, while Cantrell said many of the expense were in a gray area but that she repaid the money out of an abundance of caution.
During the runoff campaign, a file containing Charbonnet's allegations was delivered anonymously to Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, a strong Charbonnet supporter. Cannizzaro announced he was recusing himself from any investigation and that he was forwarding the packet to Landry.
An attorney for New Orleans Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell is fighting a bid by state Attorney General Jeff Landry's office to recuse all 12 judg…
Shortly after Cantrell won the election, capturing 60 percent of the vote, Kazik confirmed that a judge had signed subpoenas requested by the Attorney General's Office seeking records related to Cantrell's spending.
Gibbens then filed a motion seeking to quash those subpoenas. Landry's office countered by seeking the recusal of the entirety of the Criminal District Court bench.
Gibbens' motion to quash suggests that Landry's office may be behind leaks about the investigation that have resulted in the publication of various news stories. He requested that, if the subpoenas aren't quashed, White hold an evidentiary hearing to determine the source of that information.
Gibbens argued that if the Attorney General's Office was behind the leaks, that would provide another reason to quash the subpoenas.
Scott Sternberg, an attorney for The Advocate, argued that the public's right to know about the investigation outweighed any argument for sealing the pleadings in what is not a criminal case, at least yet.
Ultimately, both sides agreed to unseal the pleadings, though not the subpoenas themselves.
"This is such a strange set of circumstances and I think the judge recognizes the public has a great interest not just in the allegations against the mayor-elect but in the prosecution of this case," Sternberg said.
"We weren't taking a side here. We were only interested in finding all of the facts to which the public is entitled by law."