NO.mayoralforum.102517.013.JPG

Candidate for mayor LaToya Cantrell talks with a panel of students during a debate with Desiree Charbonnet at Tulane University in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. Students asked questions of the candidates and represented Dillard University, Southern University New Orleans, Loyola University, Tulane University, University of New Orleans and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell has used her taxpayer-funded city credit card to pay for at least $8,950 in personal or political expenses since she took office in late 2012, later reimbursing the city in several payments, sometimes months and even years later, records show.

A reimbursement of more than $4,400 came in a lump-sum payment she made to the city's fiscal office just days after qualifying to run for mayor.

An accounting of the reimbursements, which largely cover travel expenses and restaurant bills, was provided to The New Orleans Advocate by the campaign of Desiree Charbonnet, Cantrell's opponent in the November runoff.

The Charbonnet campaign said its analysis was based on public-records requests. Cantrell's office, which was provided with a copy of the document, did not deny that the charges and reimbursements occurred.

State law prohibits using public money for personal or campaign expenses. And while Cantrell paid back the money, Charbonnet's camp argued that amounted to a tacit admission the law had been broken or ignored. 

Cantrell reimbursed the city on 11 different dates starting on October 2013. In five cases, she made the reimbursements from a personal account. Six were reimbursed by her campaign account, according to the Charbonnet camp's analysis.

Cantrell's campaign said Wednesday that the reimbursements show Cantrell's commitment to ensuring that no personal expenses were made on a card paid for with public money. And it denied that the timing of a July check reimbursing $4,433 worth of expenses, covering almost the entirety of Cantrell's time in office, had anything to do with her campaign for mayor.

"The councilwoman does a thorough periodic reconciliation to ensure appropriate compliance," campaign spokesman David Winkler-Schmit said. He added that there were "occasional and inadvertent errors and they were picked up during the reconciliation process and remedied."

The Charbonnet camp's analysis, Winkler-Schmit said, amounted to "a desperate attempt to impugn the councilwoman's reputation."

"In her five years on the council, she has discussed and debated and participated in the approval for five city budgets totaling billions of dollars, and never has there been any inference of impropriety, unethical mismanagement or any illegal conduct, but in fact she has proven herself a prudent and dedicated steward of public funds," Winkler-Schmit said.

Charbonnet’s campaign, which has been pulling no punches as it attempts to gain ground on Cantrell before the Nov. 18 runoff, sent an analysis of the charges to several media outlets this week. Its representatives argued that the reimbursements themselves amounted to an admission that Cantrell was improperly using the card.

“In a way it’s a double bind, because paying it off is already a confession to doing something wrong,” Charbonnet spokesman Kevin Stuart said. “It’s an admission of guilt. And the fact that it’s timed around running for office, or qualifying for an election, just enhances that this is about guilt.

“If she weren’t worried about an election and could have gotten away with it, she would have.”

The allegations by the Charbonnet campaign show that even after a crackdown on credit card use among administration officials by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, there are still relatively few restrictions on how council members use their cards.

Council members are among the last city officials to have their own credit cards, and they are not required to justify expenses on their cards, which are paid out of their offices' operating budgets. They largely decide for themselves what qualifies as a public expense.

The New Orleans Advocate has requested public records on the use of credit cards by Cantrell’s office, as well as those of the other six members of the City Council, after receiving the Charbonnet campaign's allegations. Such requests usually take days or weeks to fulfill.

Each council office is eligible to receive two credit cards, one for the council member and one for the office's chief of staff, said interim Council Chief of Staff David Gavlinski, who oversees the office that provides administrative functions for all seven council members.

The documents provided by Charbonnet's campaign also included spreadsheets laying out at least $35,000 in additional charges its representatives said Cantrell failed to justify by connecting them to a legitimate office expense. 

While each council member is required to sign an agreement not to use the card except for "legitimate city business," and members are instructed on their proper use, they are not required to provide written justification for their purchases.

The money to pay off the cards comes out of each council office's annual operating budget; that budget is $30,000 this year and was $35,000 in each of the last several years.

With the potential for the lines between public and private expenses sometimes to be blurred for elected officials, Gavlinski said, "a little bit of that is a judgment call, and as elected officials we expect them to use their judgment."

It's not uncommon for council offices to reimburse the city for expenses, sometimes at the prodding of the central office's staff. However, Gavlinski said the type of mass reimbursement Cantrell's office made in July does not happen often. 

That's drastically different from the Landrieu administration's internal policies, which strictly limit the number of people in the executive branch who have access to city credit cards; documentation is required whenever they are used.

When taken together, the expense records, the lien the IRS placed on Cantrell and her husband’s home in 2014 for unpaid income taxes and their bank’s foreclosure on their home in 2013 suggest the councilwoman can’t be entrusted with the city’s purse strings, said Stuart, the Charbonnet spokesman.

“The simple truth is if she can’t manage her own finances, she can’t be trusted with a billion-dollar budget,” he said.

Cantrell's campaign has said the unpaid taxes occurred because of a dispute over how much she and her husband owed the IRS, and then that debt wasn't paid because of an error by First NBC Bank. 

Cantrell campaign consultant Karen Carvin Shachat said the foreclosure stemmed from financially difficult times for the Cantrells following Hurricane Katrina. The family sought assistance from a mortgage-relief program that offered lower payments for a fee, but the program did not end up paying the mortgage company directly, Shachat said.

At no point was the house seized or sold, and the problem has been resolved, Shachat said.

Although Cantrell’s summer reimbursement of many of her credit-card expenses might be seen by some as showing her willingness to correct the problem, Stuart noted that the payoff came days after qualifying ended for the 2017 mayor’s race.

Stuart also highlighted instances in which other public officials have misused credit cards and been charged with malfeasance and other abuses in office, most recently former New Roads Mayor Robert Myer, who pleaded no contest to misuse of city credit cards in October and was ordered to pay back what he owed.

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin came under fire in 2008 for charging dinners with his wife to credit cards billed to taxpayers. A handful of his top aides also used city cards, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, without providing any supporting documentation.

Neither Nagin nor Myer — or other public officials who have been criticized for such spending — voluntarily reimbursed taxpayers for their personal charges.  

Shachat said the attack from the Charbonnet campaign amounted to dirty tactics.

"It has become apparent that the Charbonnet campaign has become desperate to try and attack LaToya and her family personally," Shachat said. "It has been the Cantrell campaign’s intent to focus on the very serious issues facing the city, and we will do so despite the opposition's effort to distract the campaign from what’s really important."

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​