Cantrell: ‘Gray areas’ were not improper spending_lowres

LaToya Cantrell announcing her mayoral candidacy at the New Orleans Jazz Market July 18.

In an interview with Gambit Thursday evening, District B City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate LaToya Cantrell addressed the latest salvo in the mayor’s race: charges that she misused her city-provided credit card. A packet of information relating to Cantrell’s spending - and money she had reimbursed the city - was provided anonymously to newsrooms around town yesterday. Everyone assumes the delivery came from the camp of Cantrell’s mayoral opponent, Desiree Charbonnet.

Cantrell said her personal check in the amount of $4,433.22, which was received by the council’s fiscal office on July 17 (one day before her campaign kickoff party), was not evidence of wrongdoing or sloppiness, but was her attempt to “take a laser focus on everything” she has spent on her nearly five years on the council.

“A lot of this is gray area,” she said, referring to expenses that the Charbonnet campaign claims were not directly related to daily council business. Cantrell said she asked then-Council Chief of Staff Evelyn Pugh, who is a lawyer, to “opine” on some of her expenses. “I never got the opine, so I reimbursed it,” she told Gambit. “If it’s [a gray area], well, then just go ahead and reimburse.

“It’s not even that those expenses wouldn’t qualify as legitimate on the city’s [credit] card,” Cantrell added, “but if it’s gray, just do it.”

Louisiana law and city policy prohibit the use of public funds for personal expenses.

[jump] [content-1]Much of the $4,433.22 reimbursement went to travel-related expenses, including hotels, flights, transportation and miscellaneous airline charges. Cantrell said some of those charges were related to The Aspen Institute, where she was a 2014 Henry Crown Fellow, as well as related to her work on the board of directors of the group Local Progress. Cantrell also cited travel to help other municipalities work on their own smoking bans, such as the one she successfully steered through the New Orleans City Council, as well as work on issues such as affordable housing.

One item - an $85 expense to the TSA - seemed to be for TSA PreCheck approval, which expedites screening at airports. “Most of the travel I do is affiliated with the city,” Cantrell said.

A one-day trip to New York in April 2016 included a Delta Airlines round-trip ticket for $958.20, as well as hotel and transportation expenses. Cantrell said that trip was for the funeral of an “archbishop who was very influential in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina,” but could not recall his surname, though she thought his first name was Paul. Another trip, in July 2016, was related to her work with Local Progress, she said.

Cantrell said the July 2017 check issued on her and her husband’s personal checking account was only one in a series of reimbursements she had made to the city for use of her council credit card. She promised to provide other canceled checks showing she had made similar payments before, as needed. “I did reimburse other things in ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16,” she said.

The candidate has run into muddy financial issues before. In July, The Lens revealed that Cantrell and her husband, Jason Cantrell, owed $28,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. Cantrell said the couple had underpaid their federal taxes for years but that the debt was paid off by September, according to the Lens.

While much of the negative campaigning in the primary mayoral race was aimed at Charbonnet, Cantrell’s now-frontrunner status, combined with her endorsement by third-place challenger Michael Bagneris, has made her a fresh target, with early voting beginning Nov. 4. The Charbonnet campaign already has created an ad claiming Cantrell used city money as "her personal piggy bank for lavish personal expenses.” Meanwhile, Cantrell campaign consultant Karen Carvin Shachat told Gambit in an email that the campaign is poring through Charbonnet’s expenses during the time she sat as a Municipal Court judge and promises to answer Charbonnet’s barrage in kind.

Cantrell insists the recent reimbursements were for proper expenditures that her campaign figured Charbonnet would try to misconstrue, and she had done nothing improper. She said her camp soon will release a statement answering all the questions her check raised. “I don’t see where any of this was in violation,” she said.