Days after Desiree Charbonnet tried to make hay out of roughly $43,000 that her mayoral runoff opponent LaToya Cantrell has charged to a taxpayer-funded credit card during her five years on the City Council — including at least $8,950 in personal or political expenses that Cantrell later repaid — Cantrell is accusing Charbonnet of racking up similar charges over her decade as a Municipal Court judge.
Cantrell claims that the more than $59,000 Charbonnet billed taxpayers between 2007 and 2017 showed a pattern of lavish spending and fancy trips on the public dime.
Charbonnet's camp dismissed the attack as an attempt to draw attention away from Cantrell's own spending habits.
Charbonnet's backers said none of her expenses were political. The supporting receipts suggest the charges were tied to professional development or other official business.
Still, Cantrell’s camp said Charbonnet’s expenses — particularly more than $18,000 she paid to renovate her office in 2008 — were extravagant, in light of sparse funding for Municipal Court and other criminal justice agencies. It also criticized roughly $9,700 in travel per diems that Charbonnet received but did not document.
The issue, said Cantrell campaign consultant Karen Carvin Shachat, is not whether the expenses were officially listed as related to Charbonnet’s work but the very fact of the fancy furnishings and trips to exotic locales the former judge paid for with public money.
“It was taxpayer money. Whether it was approved or not, it was taxpayer dollars,” Shachat said. “It shows a disregard for taxpayer money in the level of glamorous lushness.”
A Charbonnet spokesman called Cantrell’s attack a “transparent attempt at false equivalency,” adding that Charbonnet’s purchases don’t compare to Cantrell’s alleged spending missteps.
“Cantrell is flailing about in fear and panic,” Kevin Stuart said. “Cantrell may not like the file cabinets Charbonnet bought, but there are politicians in jail right now for what Cantrell has done.”
A former mayor of Compton, California, Omar Bradley, served a year in jail for using a city-issued credit card for personal expenses, Stuart said. Greg Davis, a Southaven, Mississippi, mayor was indicted in 2012 after buying a car and paying off debt with public money, some of which he paid back.
The mostly mild-mannered race between the two candidates ignited last week after Charbonnet’s team sent an accounting of Cantrell’s reimbursements and other expenses to several media outlets, not long after Cantrell finished first in the Oct. 14 primary. The analysis was based on public records, which The Advocate requested and received.
It’s not yet clear what effect the records — which show that Cantrell spent at least $8,950 on mostly travel and restaurant bills, then reimbursed the city, often months or years later — will have on Cantrell’s standing with voters. State law prohibits using public money for personal or campaign expenses.
The Cantrell campaign has cast the reimbursements as an effort to ensure taxpayers were not billed for such expenses.
The Charbonnet camp has used the expense records, a tax lien the IRS placed on Cantrell and her husband’s home in 2014 and their bank’s foreclosure on their home in 2013 as evidence Cantrell can’t be trusted with the city’s finances.
The lien was placed after the Cantrells didn’t pay taxes because of a dispute over how much she and her husband owed the IRS, Cantrell’s camp has said. The foreclosure stemmed from financial difficulties they experienced after Hurricane Katrina and has since been resolved.
In her counterattack Monday, Cantrell highlighted Charbonnet’s spending of more than $18,000 on office furnishings to back up her claim that the former judge ran a wasteful office.
The furnishings included a $2,200 love seat with tufting and brass nail trim, a $948 executive chair with tufting and a $358 22-inch Samsung HDTV, Cantrell’s team said.
“At a time when court budgets are so tight, did she really need to spend $2,200 on a ‘tufted love seat’ or charge taxpayers so she could have a TV in her office?” Shachat asked.
Shachat also questioned more than $29,000 in out-of-state travel Charbonnet took at taxpayer expense, including a trip to Hawaii and several to Florida.
The travel was for conferences put on by the New Orleans Bar Association, Louisiana Bar Association and other legal and judicial organizations, records show.
Beyond the cost of the travel itself, Charbonnet also received almost $9,800 in “per diems,” a flat daily payment the court pays to judges when they are traveling to cover their food and other expenses. A per diem for a full day’s travel is $118, something Shachat said works out to more than $14 an hour, “more than a lot of people in her courtroom would make.”
Responding to the issue of Charbonnet’s office renovations, Stuart said she arrived at Municipal Court shortly after Katrina, when the court was still housed in Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office mock courtrooms. When the court moved back into its building on South Broad Street, Charbonnet had to furnish the office from scratch, he said.
All of Charbonnet’s travel was for city purposes, he said. The per diems she received were in line with court policies, he said, and did not have to be backed up by receipts.
Talking about per diems and travel “in a menacing tone just makes Cantrell look foolish, especially since there’s such a stark contrast between Charbonnet’s clean record and Cantrell’s longstanding habit of treating the city credit card like it’s her money,” Stuart said.