NO.cleanup.091818.008

Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks during a press conference about the launch of the CLEANUP NOLA initiative to fight litter in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

An audit of the New Orleans City Council's credit-card usage found sloppy bookkeeping and questionable purchases were widespread among council members, but that Mayor LaToya Cantrell's spending habits while she was on the council — the subject of political attacks that prompted the audit and an investigation by the Attorney General's Office — were not out of line with those of her former colleagues.

The report from the state Legislative Auditor's Office notes that the council's policies for credit-card use were problematic when Cantrell served as a member, leading to lax oversight and potentially questionable purchases by council members and their staffs.

However, the auditors determined that "due to the council's lack of policies, procedures and records, it was not possible for us to determine if these expenditures were improper."

The audit covers the period from June 2014 to September 2017, before most of the members of the current council were in office.

The audit is expected to be published on Monday. The New Orleans Advocate obtained a copy ahead of its formal release.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera declined to comment on the audit Thursday, saying the office does not discuss its audits before they are released publicly.

The brief report may not lay to rest the controversy and investigation into Cantrell's credit-card use, but the mayor claimed victory in her response, which is included with the report.

"The audit determined that my city credit-card usage was not unlike several other council members and their staff," Cantrell wrote. "I agree with this finding as it supports my assertion from the beginning that my use of the card was consistent with the then-established policies of the City Council."

Cantrell's use of her city credit card became a hot-button issue last year when her opponent in the mayoral runoff, Desiree Charbonnet, alleged that thousands of dollars Cantrell and her staff charged to the card amounted to using public funds for personal expenses.

Charbonnet's campaign zeroed in on large, lump-sum reimbursements Cantrell had made to the city over the years as evidence that improper purchases had been made.

Charbonnet's allegations prompted Attorney General Jeff Landry to take the unusual step of publicly announcing during the campaign that he was launching a criminal investigation into the accusations.

Landry has said he is waiting on the auditor's report before making a decision about the case.

Ruth Wisher, a spokeswoman for Landry, declined to comment on the audit Thursday because it has not yet been publicly released. She also cited a policy against speaking about ongoing investigations.

The audit does not rule out the possibility of a criminal prosecution, noting that various purchases by council members "may have violated the Louisiana Constitution and state law," a common finding in reports from the Legislative Auditor's Office.

However, audit reports on allegations that auditors expect to be prosecuted as serious crimes typically delve far more deeply into the specifics of those acts than does the credit-card audit.

Instead, the report focuses on the weak oversight in the past of the council's credit-card usage and the frequency with which members ignored policies requiring receipts and documentation showing why a particular purchase was made. That criticism largely tracks The Advocate's analysis at the time, which showed that council offices used their credit cards for a range of expenses, from travel and meals to equipment and furniture, without getting any outside approval.

Overall, the report found that the seven council offices used their credit cards on about $379,000 in purchases over the roughly three-year period. The money from those charges came from each office's yearly $35,000 budget for operating expenses.

The potentially problematic categories of purchases by council members listed in the audit include $6,754 spent on meals that could qualify as parties or celebratory functions, $2,814 spent on floral arrangements, $3,142 on gifts, $140 on gift cards, and money spent on food items.

The report also notes about $36,130 was spent on meals. In their responses, various council members defended those items as either working lunches, meals for staff and themselves during meetings, or food purchased for constituents, community groups or students.

Without specifically naming Cantrell, the report does single out $897 her office spent on Thanksgiving turkeys for the needy, noting that there were no objective criteria to determine who qualified for that giveaway.

The report also notes that council members' use of the cards to purchase tickets, meals and lodging while traveling may have violated city policies if the offices did not fill out authorization forms, document the purpose of their trips or ensure they were receiving the lowest rate. 

In responses included in the audit, Councilman Jason Williams and former council members James Gray, Susan Guidry and Nadine Ramsey said they followed or attempted to follow city policies.

A chief line of attack from Charbonnet's camp — that Cantrell's decision to reimburse $9,725 worth of charges amounted to an admission of guilt — is barely mentioned in the report.

All of Cantrell's reimbursements occurred before the campaign and before her credit-card spending was made a public issue, and she has said the repayments were simply an attempt to ensure no public money was spent on personal expenses.

At least some of the problems spotlighted in the new report were addressed by the council in May, at the last meeting Cantrell participated in as a council member. The council at that meeting unanimously passed a policy requiring documentation and receipts for all purchases on city-issued credit cards and setting out a formal policy for reimbursements.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​