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Mayoral candidate and former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet poses for a photo at her campaign headquarters in New Orleans, La. Friday, July 21, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MAX BECHERER

The first major shots have officially been fired in what so far has been a mostly low-key, attack-free New Orleans mayoral race, but it's as yet unclear who's behind a slick mailer and website targeting candidate Desiree Charbonnet.

There are few fingerprints on the political action committee behind the attack, Not For Sale NOLA, which accuses the former Municipal Court judge of "cronyism, corruption and sweetheart deals." 

Those accusations, highlighted with a caricature of Charbonnet accepting money and images of smoke-filled rooms overlaid with photos linking her to a controversial associate and to disgraced former U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson, landed in mailboxes and launched online Wednesday at notforsalenola.com. And the ad, billed as "Chapter 1" in "The Desiree Charbonnet Tales," appears to be only the first in a series.

Kevin Stuart, a media consultant for Charbonnet's campaign, called the effort a "false and baseless" attack that raises the "specter of dark money and dishonesty" in the race.

"Our opponents have failed to capture the attention of the voters, so it’s predictable they would attack the front-runner. There was no hint of patronage or corruption in her record," Stuart said, before calling on Charbonnet's leading opponents to disavow not only the group itself but "this dirty and cowardly style of attack."

Officials with the campaigns of both of Charbonnet's top opponents, former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris and City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, said they did not know anything about who was behind the PAC.

The ad does not endorse any candidate in the mayor's race, instead firing away at Charbonnet.

The ad, which includes citations to various publications and lawsuits to back up its claims, largely focuses on Charbonnet's decision to fire about two dozen workers shortly after she was elected as recorder of mortgages in 1998 and then to hire new staff to replace them.

The new hires included Ike Spears, a controversial political operative and attorney allied with both Charbonnet and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans. Richmond has supported Charbonnet's candidacy.

Another hire was a niece of U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson, who is currently serving a 13-year federal sentence for unrelated corruption charges.

Charbonnet also hired Paulette Irons, then a state senator and an ally of Charbonnet's, who in 2002 took a leave of absence from her position in the recorder's office to run for mayor.

The ad also highlights a 2000 report suggesting Charbonnet may have been awarded a $1,500-a-month contract with the New Orleans Aviation Board because of the support her brother, lawyer Bernard Charbonnet, and the COUP political organization threw behind Marlin Gusman, then Mayor Marc Morial's chief administrative officer, in a City Council race in District D.

"The allegations are absolutely false, and we think the judge's record both speaks for itself and speaks very highly for her character," said Stuart, who argued that most media attention Charbonnet has received has been about her effectiveness in office.

Exactly who is behind the group remains a mystery, though it taps into charges already leveled privately by some, particularly those in the business and development communities, about Charbonnet's deep political connections.

Those criticisms were in part fueled by the massive, $869,000 haul shown on her first campaign finance report. The total dwarfed that of any of her opponents.

Her backers say many of her biggest donors also gave to Mitch Landrieu in the 2010 mayor’s race, when he jumped in at the last moment and took in more than $1 million within a month.

Two people are listed on the paperwork that Not For Sale NOLA filed with the state. Amanda Maloy is a partner at Burland & Maloy LLC, a Baton Rouge firm that handles PAC management and lobbying. Jesse Gilmore is a Shreveport political consultant with Blue Pelican Strategies.

Maloy said Wednesday that she handles only financial information for the group and could not discuss who was behind the organization. Gilmore did not respond to a call requesting comment.

The group was formally founded by filing a statement of organization with the Louisiana Ethics Board, which oversees campaign finance in the state, on Sept. 5.

The date is particularly notable in this case. Campaign finance reports that cover the period through Sept. 4 are due Thursday. Because the group had not formally organized at that point — and, Maloy said, had not collected any money — it will not have to disclose its donors or expenditures until the next reporting deadline, just 10 days before the Oct. 14 primary.

The site itself was registered through a service that keeps the owners of the domain name private.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​