Landry Cantrell

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (left) and New Orleans mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell

The Louisiana Supreme Court has appointed a retired Baton Rouge judge, Freddie Pitcher Jr., to decide whether the Criminal District Court bench in New Orleans should be recused from a probe into Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell's credit card use as a city councilwoman.

Pitcher will hear a motion by state Attorney General Jeff Landry requesting that any matters pertaining to the investigation be moved out of the New Orleans court.

Landry's office is investigating Cantrell's alleged misuse of her council credit card to cover personal and campaign expenses. The issue was raised in October, nearly two weeks after the primary election, by backers of her runoff opponent, Desiree Charbonnet.

Cantrell, a Democrat who is set to become the city's first female mayor on May 8, has not been charged with a crime.

Landry, a Republican, contends that none of the 12 criminal court judges can fairly oversee the investigation or any prosecution that might result because as mayor she will have considerable power over the court's funding. In addition, Cantrell's father-in-law, Harry Cantrell, is a magistrate judge at the court, creating a conflict, Landry's office asserts.

Cantrell's attorney, Billy Gibbens, has opposed any recusal, pointing out that it was Landry's office that first approached the Orleans Parish judges to sign subpoenas for her bank records. Landry's office also is seeking Cantrell's personal bank records.

Judge Camille Buras has already recused herself. The matter was then passed to Judge Laurie White, who has refused to recuse herself or the rest of the bench. 

When the Supreme Court first announced it would be assigning an ad hoc judge to decide on Landry's request, Chief Deputy Attorney General Bill Stiles said Landry's office was "very pleased."

Gibbens, on the other hand, said his client is "confident" that an ad hoc judge will agree that White can "fairly preside" over the matter. He has characterized Landry's pursuit of Cantrell's records as "an intrusive and harassing witch hunt by a political opponent."

Pitcher, who became the first African-American judge in Baton Rouge when he was elected to serve on the City Court bench in 1983, has previously served ad hoc on the Louisiana Supreme Court. He also served in the 19th Judicial District and the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.

Pitcher retired from the bench in 1997 to become a partner in the Baton Rouge office of Phelps Dunbar LLP. He rejoined the firm in 2015 after serving as chancellor of the Southern University Law Center for more than a decade.

Cantrell's use of her council credit card became a hot-button issue when Charbonnet's campaign highlighted $9,000 in charges on her council account that Cantrell later reimbursed with checks from her campaign funds and personal bank account, in some cases years later.

More than $4,000 of those paybacks came after Cantrell qualified to run for mayor.

Records have shown that Cantrell often lacked documentation warranting public spending on trips, meals and other purchases.

Opponents have argued the repayments were an admission of misconduct, while Cantrell said she was simply making sure taxpayers weren't charged for personal or political expenses.

Cantrell later criticized Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro for announcing his receipt of an anonymous complaint based on opposition research by the Charbonnet campaign; he forwarded the complaint to Landry.

Cannizzaro said he referred the complaint to Landry because he was supporting Charbonnet in the Nov. 18 mayoral runoff, which Cantrell won easily.

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.