Four days before LaToya Cantrell takes the oath of office as New Orleans' next mayor, state Attorney General Jeff Landry on Thursday issued a surprise announcement that his probe of the mayor-elect is "ongoing" and extends beyond Cantrell and her possible abuse of city credit cards.
Landry didn't say specifically what prompted the announcement, but in a prepared statement, he said that he was issuing it because "there has been too much misinformation being spread to the public."
Ruth Wisher, a Landry spokeswoman, said she could not elaborate.
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The Landry statement said: "Our investigation in New Orleans is still ongoing and it is more widespread than just the mayor-elect. The legislative auditor is also involved to examine the city's spending practices. We look forward to his audit's conclusion and will not make a prosecutorial decision until at least such time."
Landry’s office had received inquiries from at least one New Orleans television station following up on rumors that the Attorney General’s Office had concluded its probe of Cantrell and decided not to pursue charges, according to two people familiar with the exchanges. The attorney general apparently sought to tamp down any potential story.
Attorney General Jeff Landry issued the following statement to clarify any misinformation in the public regarding the #Cantrell Investigation. #lalege #lagov https://t.co/OHwjApejsI pic.twitter.com/IP0erWVobW— AG Jeff Landry (@AGJeffLandry) May 3, 2018
The AG's announcement caught Cantrell's team by surprise. Beau Tidwell, her communications director, issued a statement in response claiming that the Attorney General's Office had recently sent clear signals that the probe would end without charges.
"Today’s statement from AG Landry is completely at odds with representations made by the attorney general’s staff to our legal counsel as recently as this morning," Tidwell said. "Contrary to what Landry’s statement insinuates, the findings of his staff completely exonerate Mayor-elect Cantrell. They found no evidence of wrongdoing, and in fact, they believed they were provided inaccurate information by politically motivated individuals in the first place.
“The decision by the AG today to do a complete about-face and disregard the findings of his staff is a grave disappointment. We will not be distracted by stunts like this, and the Cantrell administration remains focused on the serious work of delivering results for the people of New Orleans.”
Landry is a Republican. Cantrell and almost all other New Orleans elected officials are Democrats.
Landry has been examining Cantrell’s use of her City Council credit card for more than six months. So has the state's legislative auditor, who requested records related to the use of city credit cards by Cantrell and the other six members of the City Council in November.
The probes began shortly after Cantrell's opponent in the general election, Desiree Charbonnet, produced records in October showing that Cantrell had used her city credit card — which is billed to taxpayers — for personal expenses and travel.
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By then, Cantrell had already reimbursed the council for about $9,000 in charges, including a large lump sum she returned just before qualifying to run for mayor.
The dispute moved from the political to the legal arena when someone made an anonymous complaint to Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, a strong supporter of Charbonnet. He quickly announced that he was forwarding the matter to Landry.
As Cantrell’s camp noted at the time, several other council members also used official credit cards for food, travel and other expenses.
News of the probe sparked some heated legal tussles in late 2017, with Cantrell's attorneys seeking to quash subpoenas sought by Landry for Cantrell's bank records and credit-card statements. Billy Gibbens, her lawyer, called the inquiry a "witch hunt" in one filing.
But tempers on both sides appeared to have cooled recently. Last month, Landry agreed to drop a subpoena for the records on the condition that Cantrell would allow his investigators to view her bank records in Gibbens' office, according to a joint motion filed in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this story.
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