The chief judge of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court has scheduled a Friday hearing on a request by state Attorney General Jeff Landry's office to remove the entire court from further involvement in a probe into Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell's credit card use as a New Orleans city councilwoman.
Chief Judge Laurie White will preside over a hearing in which Landry's office is expected to argue that none of the court's 12 judges can escape at least an appearance of bias in what is not yet even a criminal case.
The court's magistrate judge, Harry Cantrell, is LaToya Cantrell's father-in-law.
Landry's office cites Cantrell's "connexity" to the court as the future mayor as another reason for recusing the entire court. The court gets significant funding from the city — about $3 million in 2017 — and occupies a city-owned building.
Orleans Parish Civil District Court, which handles numerous lawsuits against mayors and city agencies, also occupies city property but does not rely on the city for funding.
Landry's office also cited reasons that Criminal District Judge Camille Buras gave Friday when she recused herself from the matter after she signed subpoenas Nov. 27 for Cantrell's bank records.
Buras cited a pending motion by Cantrell's attorneys to quash those subpoenas, writing that a hearing on that motion "would implicate, on apparent multiple bases," the state law that lays out the grounds for a judge's recusal.
In arguing for a recusal, Landry's office said the court's judicial administrator, Rob Kazik, "has now become a potential witness in a motion pending before the court." It did not say why Kazik might be called to testify.
Even as she recused herself, Buras sealed the subpoenas she signed until it's decided which judge will be overseeing the matter.
White signed an order Monday placing all pleadings in the matter under seal, after The Advocate asked for a copy of the motion to quash the subpoenas that Buras cited in her recusal notice.
Landry's office has asked that the Louisiana Supreme Court appoint an ad hoc judge to preside over the investigation and any criminal prosecution that could result from it.
No criminal charges have been filed against Cantrell, who was dogged in her successful mayoral bid by allegations from her runoff opponent, Desiree Charbonnet, that Cantrell misused her city-issued credit cards and then reimbursed the city over questionable charges days after qualifying to run.
All told, Cantrell repaid about $9,000 to the city.
Cantrell and her campaign have argued that the reimbursements proved she was diligent in protecting taxpayers' money. Charbonnet's campaign said they proved she misspent city funds.
The subpoenas marked the first sign that Landry's office is pursuing a complaint against Cantrell that was referred to his office in a highly public fashion by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro, a Charbonnet supporter, revealed in October that his office had received an "anonymous complaint" about Cantrell's spending and had forwarded it to Landry's office. Cannizzaro’s publicizing of the complaint prompted Cantrell’s camp to suggest the DA was using his office for political purposes.
A later examination of records from all seven City Council offices showed that Cantrell’s spending, though higher, was not significantly different from that of her colleagues.
The state Legislative Auditor's Office has separately requested information on credit card use by all the council members. But Landry's probe appears to be focused on Cantrell; the subpoenas signed last week were for her records alone.
Whether the subpoenas for Cantrell's financial records have been served yet, and to whom, remains uncertain, despite the reference to a motion to quash them.
"To my knowledge, no one has seen the subpoenas," David Winkler-Schmit, a spokesman for the Cantrell campaign, said Monday afternoon.
Under the law, a judge must step away if he or she is biased or personally interested in a case; if the judge is closely related to the accused or an attorney in the case; if the judge is a witness; or if for other reasons the judge wouldn't be able to conduct a fair trial.
In the recusal motion, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Derbes said state prosecutors met with resistance when they approached several judges about signing the subpoenas for Cantrell's bank records.
Six other judges declined to sign the subpoenas before they reached Buras. Five cited a conflict of interest, and the sixth claimed he lacked jurisdiction, Derbes wrote.
That fact gives Landry's office good reason to seek an outside jurist, said Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino.
"It would be different if just one judge refused to do it. But since you have so many judges who have voluntarily recused (from signing the subpoenas), that demonstrates the problem," Ciolino said.
Asking to remove the entire court at once, rather than judge by judge, "is not usually done," he said, "but it's an unusual case."