New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who led the 18-candidate field in the Oct. 14 mayoral primary, charged nearly $9,000 in personal or political expenses to her city-issued, taxpayer-financed credit card since taking office in 2012, according to public records given to Gambit and other news organizations by the campaign of Cantrell’s runoff opponent Desiree Charbonnet.
According to those public records, Cantrell reimbursed the city for at least $8,950 in such charges. The Charbonnet campaign alleges in radio ads and in public statements that Cantrell has a lot more explaining to do - allegedly because she charged a total of more than $40,000 in questionable expenses to the city-issued credit card over the years.
Moreover, almost half of Cantrell’s reimbursements - $4,433.22 - came via a single check received by the City Council Fiscal Office on July 17, 2017, five days after Cantrell qualified for mayor. The date on the check reads “7/1/2017,” but a memo from Cantrell’s office noting the “attached” check is dated July 14. She qualified for mayor on July 12.
[jump] The reimbursements largely cover travel expenses and restaurant bills. The Charbonnet campaign says they prove that Cantrell violated city policy and possibly state law - a charge dismissed by Cantrell’s camp as a desperate ploy by Charbonnet after trailing in the Oct. 14 primary.
At a minimum, the 11 reimbursements by Cantrell - five from her personal account and six from her council campaign account - show a pattern of using the city credit card for personal and/or campaign expenses. State law prohibits such use of a city credit card, the Charbonnet camp claims, and Charbonnet already has made the expenditures the topic of a radio ad blasting Cantrell.
Gambit was unable to reach a Cantrell spokesman late Wednesday, but a campaign spokesman earlier told The New Orleans Advocate that the reimbursements prove Cantrell wanted to make sure that the city did not pay for any of her personal expenses. The spokesman also denied that the latest reimbursement check (in July) had anything to do with her qualifying for mayor.
“The councilwoman does a thorough periodic reconciliation to ensure appropriate compliance,” campaign spokesman David Winkler-Schmit told The Advocate, adding that the reimbursements amounted to “occasional and inadvertent errors and they were picked up during the reconciliation process and remedied.”
Winkler-Schmit called Charbonnet’s depiction of Cantrell’s credit card use "a desperate attempt to impugn the councilwoman's reputation," according to The Advocate. "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.
[content-1]Cantrell and Charbonnet appear destined to trade attacks between now and the Nov. 18 runoff. For now, it will be interesting to see if any prosecutorial action comes in response to the Charbonnet campaign’s claim that Cantrell violated state law. New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro endorsed Charbonnet in the primary and presumably would recuse himself from any investigation - if there is one - in which case the state attorney general’s office would appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the allegations.