A state appeals court panel has rejected a bid by Attorney General Jeff Landry's office to remove its investigation into Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell's use of a city-issued credit card from the purview of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
In a split ruling late Tuesday, 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judges Daniel Dysart and Roland Belsome found that Criminal District Court Judge Laurie White acted within her proper discretion when she refused to recuse herself or any other judge on the court from presiding over the Cantrell matter. Judge Joy Cossich Lobrano dissented.
Unless it's overturned, the decision leaves the Cantrell probe in White's hands pending any criminal charges that may be filed against the mayor-elect.
"We are clearly disappointed by this ruling, and we will appeal it to the Louisiana Supreme Court," Landry said in a statement.
Cantrell's alleged misuse of her City Council credit card roiled the campaign before voters elected her last month to become the city's first female mayor. She is due to take office in May.
In her dissent, Lobrano said she would have reversed White's decision "out of an abundance of caution" given what Lobrano described as "the unique circumstances surrounding this matter."
Tuesday's ruling sets the stage for a Jan. 3 hearing before White on a bid by Cantrell's attorney, Billy Gibbens, to quash one of three subpoenas that Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras signed on Dec. 4.
Landry's office presented the subpoenas to several other judges at the court before Buras agreed to sign them.
Cantrell is seeking to quash only one of the subpoenas, which seeks her personal banking records. Gibbens has described Landry's pursuit of those records as "nothing more than an intrusive and harassing witch-hunt by a political opponent."
White, the court's chief judge, stayed the subpoenas pending a resolution of Landry's appeal.
In its push to have the state Supreme Court appoint an ad hoc judge to oversee the investigation, Landry's office aired several concerns about the ability of White or any of her 11 colleagues on the criminal court bench to fairly handle what is not yet a criminal case.
They argued that as mayor, Cantrell will have “considerable influence” over the court’s budget; that her father-in-law, Harry Cantrell, sits as the court's magistrate judge; and that several of the judges refused even to sign the subpoenas that Landry's office sought.
The AG’s Office also made repeated allegations about leaks at the courthouse that it says compromise the integrity of the investigation into Cantrell. It placed particular emphasis on a Nov. 27 article in The New Orleans Advocate reporting the existence of subpoenas for Cantrell’s credit card records.
Although the subpoenas were confirmed by Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik, Landry's office and Gibbens have argued over who “leaked” the information to the newspaper.
The AG’s Office also said White undermined its investigation by allowing Gibbens to view the subpoenas for Cantrell's financial records. Those subpoenas remain under seal and are not available to the general public for review.
Cantrell's use of her council credit card became a hot-button issue when the campaign of her runoff opponent, former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, highlighted some $9,000 in charges that Cantrell later reimbursed, sometimes years later. More than $4,000 of those paybacks came after Cantrell qualified to run for mayor.
Charbonnet's campaign described the reimbursements as a tacit admission of wrongdoing. Cantrell said she was merely ensuring that taxpayers weren't on the hook for any borderline charges.
Cantrell later slammed Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office for announcing its receipt of an anonymous complaint based on the Charbonnet campaign's research, as well as the DA's decision to forward that complaint to Landry's office. Cantrell accused Cannizzaro, a staunch Charbonnet supporter, of playing politics.
Gibbens declined Wednesday to comment on the appeals court ruling.