Former New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Warren Riley filed a federal lawsuit Friday that accuses Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the city of breach of contract for reneging on an agreement to hire him as the city's public safety czar.
In the lawsuit, Riley claims more than $700,000 in damages as a result of his quitting a lucrative job in the federal government and preparing to move from Georgia to work for the city where he served a tumultuous four years as police chief beginning a month after Hurricane Katrina.
The suit names Cantrell both individually and as mayor, claiming Riley has been unable to find a job with the same salary and benefits as the $170,000-per-year post he left at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In that job, Riley helped coordinate federal disaster response and recovery efforts.
Through a spokeswoman, Cantrell declined to comment on the suit.
In the lawsuit, Riley chronicles his interactions with Cantrell, before and after news of her plan to hire him as director of public safety and homeland security drew criticism and surprise among political observers.
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Riley insists he never sought the city job. But after a series of phone calls and an April 16 interview that he says involved state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond and others, Cantrell offered the job to him in an April 22 letter.
His annual salary was to be $180,000, slightly above his salary working for FEMA, according to the letter.
Cantrell first addressed rumors of Riley’s appointment in late April, a few weeks before she took office, when she told WDSU-TV that he was on a short list for the position. By that point, however, documents show Riley already had been offered and had accepted the position.
Cantrell's decision to appoint Riley, who served as the NOPD’s chief of operations during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was appointed to lead the department soon afterward, was perhaps the most controversial aspect of her transition.
Riley has been widely criticized for his leadership following Katrina and, in particular, for an alleged lack of interest in investigating accusations of police violence in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
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During his time as superintendent, for instance, Riley acknowledged he never read his own department’s report on the Danziger Bridge shootings, when NOPD officers opened fire on a group of unarmed civilians, killing two people and injuring four others.
Cantrell faced significant pushback from families of the victims of that shooting and from police watchdog groups worried that installing Riley in a position that oversees the Police Department would roll back progress made under a federal consent decree to clean up the NOPD.
After wavering for weeks, Cantrell eventually announced she would not be hiring Riley, saying the community’s “pain is too great” to go through with the appointment.
In early June, Cantrell appointed Terry Ebbert as director of public safety and security. Ebbert, who was in charge of New Orleans’ disaster response and public safety agencies under former Mayor Ray Nagin, would oversee the fire and emergency medical operations and be responsible for emergency preparedness but would not oversee the Police Department, Cantrell's office said.
In his lawsuit, Riley claims Cantrell's waffling cost him dearly.
He says Cantrell approached him in April 2017 while she was launching her campaign for mayor. Two months later, he claims, she first broached the homeland security job.
Once hired, Riley claims he conducted interviews with several people for jobs he would oversee in his new post.
Cantrell told him to be in New Orleans by May 2, when Riley says he reported to a “meet and greet” session with Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, new Criminal Justice Commissioner Tenisha Stevens and others.
But it wasn't what Riley had expected. Soon after he was given a tour of the city’s emergency management office, Cantrell called him aside to tell him his appointment had been “put on pause,” the lawsuit states.
According to Riley, Cantrell sent him a text message four days later, inviting him to her inaugural ball and saying, “We will put this to bed this week.” He took that as a commitment that the job was still his, the lawsuit states.
Cantrell was sworn in on May 7 as the city's first woman mayor. On May 15, Riley claims, Cantrell told him that “there are very powerful people who live Uptown that do not support you for the position.”
A day later, Cantrell called Riley.
“Chief, I can’t do it. I‘m sorry. I will not be able to appoint you,” she said, according to the lawsuit. “I will have to make you whole. I am sorry.”
Ten minutes later, Riley said, Cantrell's office issued a press release that announced Riley was out despite being “uniquely qualified” for the job.