Since June 2013, New Orleans mayoral candidate Latoya Cantrell has used her government credit card to improperly charge close to $9,000 for personal expenses. This came to light after her opponent, Desiree Charbonnet, dumped a bunch of documents on media types this past week. The documents also indicate Cantrell has a history of being taken to court for not paying what she owes.
Between the years 2004 and 2009, Cantrell racked up fines from the State Board of Ethics stemming from her unsuccessful run for the Orleans Parish School Board. Cantrell was late filing reports in 2005 and 2006, and then failed to file campaign finance reports at all for 2007, 2008 and 2009. With late payments and interest, Cantrell owed $5,600. The state eventually had to sue for garnishment of wages before Cantrell paid up. Once the garnishment was ordered, Cantrell paid the amount owed. The Cantrell campaign did not clarify why she waited until after an order garnishing her wages was issued to pay her fine.
In June 2013, the very month Cantrell began to improperly run up personal expenses on her government credit card, her bank hit her with a foreclosure notice. Cantrell had fallen 14 months behind on her $900 monthly house payments. Cantrell's spokesman, David Winkler-Schmit, blamed the mayoral candidates financial problems back then on Hurricane Katrina. Winkler-Schmit also says Cantrell sought assistance from a mortgage-relief program that offered lower payments for free, but the company did not pay the mortgage on a timely basis. I asked Winkler-Schmit for the name of the company, and after checking with both Cantrell and her husband, he said he couldn't provide it. That's suspicious, to say the least.
Another oddity about the 2013 foreclosure case against Cantrell is it's still open. It's something Winkler-Schmit could not explain and claimed he was unaware of. But Orleans Parish Deputy Clerk Amber Darby confirmed the case does indeed remain open. She said a bank might keep a foreclosure case open if it suspects the defendant will not live up to an agreement to make monthly payments. She also said it's very rare for a foreclosure case to remain open for four years.
Cantrell was hit with a second foreclosure notice a year later, this time from the IRS. And as with the previous foreclosure case, Cantrell blamed a third party. The IRS filed to seize Cantrell's home after she and her husband owed $27,564.99 in taxes, interest and penalties for 2010, 2011 and 2012, according to The Lens. Cantrell claimed she paid into an escrow account that was supposed to settle her tax debt, but the bank never sent the money to the IRS. Cantrell recently provided a letter from the IRS showing her taxes have since been paid. If she had not paid them, she would have been disqualified to run for mayor.
Cantrell clearly has a pattern of waiting until the last minute to make good on her financial commitments. She waited four years to pay back some of the personal expenses she rang up on her government credit card. It wasn't until a few days after qualifying to run as mayor that she paid off the final $4,400 of the close to $9,000 worth of charges that could be considered interest-free loans for personal expenses funded by taxpayers.
There's reason to believe much of the $4,400 would still be unpaid had Cantrell not run for mayor. She told The Times-Picayune she wrote the $4,400 check in July anticipating what she called a level of scrutiny associated with a mayoral campaign. Cantrell also said her paying the money back was not an admission of guilt. That's typical. Cantrell has a history of not owning her financial mismanagement.
Latoya Cantrell is the front-runner for a job giving her control of more than $1.3 billion dollars, which includes the city's operating and capital budgets. It's something New Orleans voters should weigh heavily, considering her history.
Dan Fagan, a former TV and radio broadcaster who lives in Metairie, writes a column that appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.