“Step back from that.” Those are the words a clearly agitated Latoya Cantrell used to rebuke WVUE television reporter Lee Zurik after he asked the New Orleans mayor about not paying her income taxes. Zurik reported this past week the IRS filed three liens against Cantrell and her husband for close to $100,000 in unpaid taxes.
“Ms. Mayor, if you cannot handle your personal finances where you owe money, how can citizens trust you to handle the budget of this city and the finances of this city?” Zurik asked Cantrell during a news conference.
“It’s a big stretch to say what I can and cannot handle, particularly if you don’t know the circumstances or the issues,” Cantrell told Zurik. “So, casting judgment, I would say kind of step back from that.”
But Zurik, known for his tenacity, refused to “step back” and pressed Cantrell on her lack of specifics.
“What’s the reason behind it? Are you not reporting everything? Are you not able to pay it? Are you not able to afford it?”
Cantrell, who describes her tax woes as complicated and personal, told Zurik it’s not a reporting issue. She claimed the majority of unpaid taxes come from IRS penalties and fines. Cantrell also insisted there have been some discrepancies over what she and her husband owe, and she says they’ve hired an attorney to reach a settlement and begin paying.
But former IRS employee and current tax attorney Bill Neilson told WVUE television most of what Cantrell and her husband owe is most likely not from penalties and fines but instead a direct result of unpaid taxes. Just last month, the IRS filed a $19,406 lien against the Cantrells for taxes they didn’t pay in 2018.
“My guess of $19,000 ... 90% of that is taxes [Income tax and FICA],” Neilson told Zurik.
The Cantrells also had two other liens filed against them in 2019 and 2018 totaling close to $75,000.
“I’d say 60-65% is tax... the rest is penalty and interest,” Neilson said.
While Cantrell wouldn’t answer why she hasn’t paid her taxes she did suggest her constituents can relate to her financial troubles.
“The people of this city, they have a mayor who really gets it and who is experiencing challenges and difficulties her own self. I’m more aligned to the citizens that I represent who are in no way free of challenges. People are dealing with a lot and I am one of them.” said Cantrell.
But the mayor didn’t mention she and her husband’s $230,000 combined yearly income is almost 7 times as high as the average median household income of her constituents. If she’s trying to play the average Jane card, it’s a tough sell.
Cantrell also hasn’t addressed her clear hypocrisy of aggressively going after city businesses and citizens that have fallen behind on their taxes, fines or fees. As mayor, she’s often complained about the city not getting its fair share as a result of people unwilling to pay what they owe.
Cantrell’s had financial mismanagement problems before, dating all the way back to 2004 when the State Board of Ethics fined Cantrell for failing to properly file campaign finance reports when she ran for Orleans Parish School Board.
As a city council member, she improperly used her taxpayer-funded credit card for personal things and was eventually forced to pay the money back. In June 2013, the very month Cantrell began to improperly use her city credit card for personal expenses, her bank hit her with a foreclosure notice on her home. Cantrell had fallen behind several months on her $900 monthly mortgage. At the same time, Cantrell’s bank was threatening to seize her home, The Lens reported the IRS also moved to foreclose on Cantrell’s home for unpaid taxes owed for the years 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Cantrell’s latest tax problems are anything but new or surprising. But now that she’s running a city with more than a $1 billion budget, she shouldn’t demand reporters “step back” when they ask her about her financial difficulties.
Email Dan Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.