New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro can probably stand being called unethical by LaToya Cantrell.

It's when Gray Sexton deems him “honorable” that Cannizzaro might start to squirm.

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Although ethics seems to be a closed book to Cantrell, Sexton is an acknowledged expert on the relevant state laws, having spent decades in charge of enforcing them. His mastery of their letter has not led to his embracing their spirit, however, and his own career has been marked by blatant conflicts of interest that offend the most rudimentary sense of propriety.

As a city councilwoman, Cantrell played fast and loose with public money for years before settling her debts just in time to run for mayor. When she talks of ethics and Sexton of honor, therefore, it's a tossup who gets the bigger laugh. Cannizzaro provides the final comic touch as he sits in the middle hoping to give the impression that butter would not melt in his mouth while searching high and low for ways to boost Cantrell's opponent in the runoff election, Desiree Charbonnet, who resigned as a Municipal Court judge to run.

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Cantrell finished first by a comfortable margin in the primary, disappointing Cannizzaro who has been steaming ever since the council cut his budget by $600,000. His only hope of getting the money restored is for Charbonnet to turn the election around — she is evidently ready to use the mayoral clout on his behalf — but that wasn't about to happen without some dirt on Cantrell.

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There was, therefore, no doubt considerable rejoicing at the DA's office when the Charbonnet campaign unearthed documents that show Cantrell used a city credit card to the tune of some $9,000 to pay personal and campaign expenses. Cantrell did pay the money back, but it took several years and she began the mayoral campaign as a deadbeat; the last installment of about $4,500 came some days after she qualified.

With the runoff campaign in full swing, and just after the Charbonnet camp had bombarded the media with documentation of the credit card caper, Cannizzaro's office announced that an “anonymous” complaint had been received against Cantrell. Since Cannizzaro and several of his top aides were plotting their damnedest to deny Cantrell the mayoralty, they concluded recusal was the only decent course.

For this, the Cantrell campaign declared it would file a complaint with the state ethics board against Cannizzaro for exploiting the power of his office for political gain. It was clearly a dumb and empty threat. The media had all the dirt on Cantrell, and had already run with the story before Cannizzaro announced that he was punting to Attorney General Jeff Landry.

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His spokesman claimed he did so only in response to media inquiries, but we may be confident he enjoyed helping out. Just to maximize the negative for Cantrell, Cannizzaro's office spelled out that this was a “criminal complaint” in the first sentence of the letter it sent to Landry and released to the media.

Maybe Cannizzaro did not need to make such a song and dance, but this was a matter of legitimate public interest, election or no election.

Cantrell is no stranger to the ethics board, although not as complainant. A few years ago the board had to secure a garnishment order before she paid fines for failing to file campaign finance reports. Financial probity has never been her forte; a bank once foreclosed on her house and the IRS issued a lien against her. It should have been obvious that putting a government credit card in her hand is asking for trouble

Sexton earned his fee from Cannizzaro by producing a letter that concluded the recusal had been handled in “an honorable and fair-minded way.” The same could not always be said for Sexton, when he was chief executive at the state ethics board. When, for example, the Jefferson Parish Council hired one company to monitor the work of another, it turned out they both had the same owner. Sexton duly showed up at a council meeting, although not in his official capacity. He was there, as attorney for both companies, to vouch for their honor.

Shortly thereafter the Legislature decreed that the ethics board chief could longer maintain a private law practice on the side. Sexton promptly resigned from the board rather than reveal who was paying him. The board nevertheless awarded him a contract so that he could continue running the show until a replacement was found. He has been Louisiana's top ethicist ever since.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.

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