NO.cantrell.adv.0005.JPG

New Orleans Mayor Elect LaToya Cantrell listens to Mayor Mitch Landrieu as they announced the beginning of the transition from the Landrieu administration to the Cantrell administration during a press conference at City hall in New Orleans, La., Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MAX BECHERER

A state judge has hit the pause button on Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s quest to obtain the financial records of New Orleans Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell.

Criminal District Court Judge Laurie White has halted a subpoena seeking Cantrell’s bank records and ordered that any documents that are released go directly to her.

Both decisions were announced during a lengthy meeting behind closed doors with lawyers for Cantrell and Landry on Dec. 8, after a court hearing in which White refused to recuse herself from the case, according to a recent court filing. The two orders were not made public at the time. 

Instead of recusing herself, White granted herself more authority over the attorney general’s investigation. She ordered that all new document requests in the Cantrell probe must land on her desk first.

White also allowed an attorney for Cantrell, Billy Gibbens, to inspect the subpoenas issued by Judge Camille Buras before Buras recused herself from the case, according to state prosecutors.

The Attorney General’s Office said that decision compromised the integrity of its investigation.

Those revelations were contained in an appeal prosecutors filed Wednesday to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. The AG's Office is asking the appeals court to remove White and the entire Criminal District Court bench from oversight of the Cantrell investigation and to appoint an outside judge instead.

The high-stakes probe at first appeared to center on the nearly $9,000 in charges to New Orleans City Council credit cards that Cantrell made and later reimbursed, in some case just days before she announced her run for mayor.

The investigation followed an anonymous complaint lodged during the mayoral campaign over Cantrell's use of her council credit cards. The complaint was forwarded to Landry's office by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who strongly backed Cantrell's runoff opponent and bowed out of any investigation.

However, the Attorney General’s Office has confirmed in recent court filings that it's seeking more than just the credit card records. State agents also secured a subpoena for Cantrell’s personal bank records.

Cantrell, a Democrat, has painted the entire investigation as a politically motivated intrusion into New Orleans politics by Landry, a "tea party" Republican who is believed to harbor gubernatorial aspirations.

Cantrell’s lawyer said in one filing that she suspects the investigation is "nothing more than an intrusive and harassing witch-hunt by a political opponent."

In their application to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal to boot White from the case, prosecutors repeated many of the same concerns they voiced when they asked White last week to recuse herself and the rest of the New Orleans bench.

They argued that as mayor Cantrell will have “considerable influence” over the court’s budget; that her father-in-law, Harry Cantrell, sits as the court's magistrate judge; and that several of the judges refused even to sign the subpoenas that Landry's office sought.

The AG’s Office also makes repeated allegations about leaks at the courthouse that it says compromise the integrity of the investigation into Cantrell.

Landry’s attorneys placed particular emphasis on a Nov. 27 article in The New Orleans Advocate reporting the existence of subpoenas for Cantrell’s credit card records. Although the subpoenas were confirmed by Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik, Landry's office and Gibbens have engaged in a tit-for-tat dispute about who “leaked” the information to the newspaper.

Prosecutors said White involved herself in the issue by interviewing Kazik about whether he was the source of the leak. State prosecutors said she told them in chambers that Kazik has denied it.

If Kazik’s credibility comes into question, then White herself could potentially be called as a witness, further undermining her impartiality in the case, prosecutors said.

The Attorney General’s Office said that as its investigation into Cantrell proceeds, it fears more leaks will occur.

“(W)hen witnesses are interviewed, detectives want those witnesses to tell them what they know and not what they may have read on the internet,” the filing says.

Prosecutors also express concern for Cantrell’s reputation.

“LaToya Cantrell may be completely innocent of all charges. Investigators do not decide who is guilty and then look for facts. The reverse is true,” the filing says.

The AG’s Office said that White also undermined the case by allowing Gibbens to see the subpoenas for Cantrell's financial records. Those subpoenas are still under seal and are not available to the general public for review.

“The state had an interest (which was compromised when Judge White provided the documents to the target of the investigation in chambers) in preserving the confidentiality of the information,” the office said.

Prosecutors asked the 4th Circuit to kick the entire Criminal District Court off the case. Barring that, they hope the appeals court will appoint an ad hoc judge to determine whether White should retain oversight over the subpoenas.

Gibbens has yet to file a brief with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. Last week he argued in court that White should maintain control of the subpoenas.

White has set a Jan. 3 court date to hear arguments on a motion from Cantrell’s lawyers to quash the subpoenas altogether.

Whatever the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal does is likely to provoke more appeals to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

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