Council members defend credit card use, one refuses interview

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Thousands of pages of public documents reveal that New Orleans City Council members bought dinners, televisions, gift cards and Facebook ads with taxpayer money since 2013.

The digging into council members' spending was ignited after it was discovered Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell purchased thousands of dollars worth of items such as candy, gift cards and even feminine products with her city-issued credit card.

Wednesday, Cantrell brushed off her spending as public outreach, even though at Willa Jean she purchased a mimosa with the card.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor ordered credit card receipts from all council members.

None of the members have been found to have violated any laws.

Councilman Jason Williams said all of his credit card use was above board.

"It's all taxpayer money, and I'll gladly work with them and turn it over just like Sewerage and Water Board transparency is important. And anytime the public wants to see those records, they should be allowed to see it," Williams said.

The city's own policy for the credit cards states alcohol and gift cards are prohibited purchases. Williams records show he purchased both. He bought a Michelob Ultra at a Hooters in Jackson, Mississippi, and he also purchased 10 gift cards in 2015. On the receipt for the gift cards, it states the purchases were made for "community development".

Williams also purchased a nearly $400 55-inch TV from HH Gregg and two $90 sleeping bags from Dick's Sporting Goods.

Williams responded Thursday saying the alcohol and gift cards were purchased in error and he reimbursed the city. He said he was in Jackson for a conference, and he said the TV was purchased for his office to keep up with broadcasts of city council meetings and the sleeping bags were for when he must sleep at city hall during hurricane evacuation events.

Councilman James Gray made a more than $4,000 purchase at Best Buy with his card. At the tech store, Gray bought three Microsoft Surface Pros and other accessories. There are also instances where Gray did not have receipts for what he purchased but was still allowed to use the card. Gray even paid for Facebook ads with the city's credit card. One of the Facebook purchases was to boost a post about Hurricane Harvey, but others were promoting his council Facebook page.

Gray responded Thursday saying the Best Buy purchase was for office use. He also said he saved taxpayers about $500 by making the purchases with an outside vendor not approved by the city. His office spokeswoman Maria Tio said the Facebook ads were for city business only.

Gray also made a purchase with the Secretary of State Tom Schedler's office in 2015 for information on citizens in his district who voted in 2012. He refused to speak with Fox 8 about that purchase.

Reporter: "A purchase that you made for all who voted in the past election. Mailing addresses. What was this for?

Gray: "I told you I wasn't going to talk to people I deem dishonest and untruthful and intentionally mislead and you fall in that category."

Reporter: "Is there anything untruthful about this receipt? Could you talk to us about what the purchase was for?"

Fox 8 contacted the Secretary of State about the $290 purchase. The secretary's spokesperson says it's for what the office calls a voter list - publicly available information that includes citizens' addresses, voting history and the party they affiliate with.

"If that's what it is, it seems to me that's something he should have paid that with his campaign funds - not our tax dollars. That benefits him running for office, doesn't benefit me one iota," said CPA Pat Lynch.

Secretary of State spokesperson Meg Casper said the information Gray purchased with the city credit card is what the office calls a voter list. It is publicly available information about citizens, including addresses, voting history and the party in which they affiliate.

Councilwoman Stacy Head used her city-issued credit card to buy Thank You Gifts, a Microsoft Surface Pro of her own and a $500 fridge.

Head said the receipt labeled Thank You Gifts was for thank you cards.

"Writing thank you notes to people who do really nice things for the city, for the city council. People that sing. We often have children who come sing for the city council, either through holidays or the National Anthem. Sometimes we'll have high school groups, children groups. I try to write thank you notes to the children and their parents," Head said Thursday.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry gave $2,300 to Greater New Orleans Inc. with her card and made an $837 purchase Sherwin Williams. Neither receipt explains why Guidry made the purchases with taxpayer money.

Guidry's Communications Director Leatrice Dupré responded Thursday saying, "There were two expenses listed in the story that deserve further explanation.  First, a charge for Greater New Orleans, Inc. for a Canvas Workshop in Panama in September 2016 was to explore economic development, strategy, and growth  opportunities between Panama and the Port of New Orleans.  Secondly, a charge made to Sherwin Williams in June 2013 was to paint the District A office suite, which appeared not to have been painted since the Morrison administration."

Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey bought $50 worth of Smarties and spent more than $300 at Walgreens for internet photos. Both receipts fail to give an explanation as to why taxpayers needed to foot the bill.

Most receipts in all of the council members' records, not including councilman Jared Brossett, do not give a reason.

According to the legislative auditor, best practices for credit cards should include itemized receipts and the business purpose clearly documented, including the names of persons participating. The legislative auditor also warns of possible violations when using city-issued credit cards, including purchasing flowers or gifts for employees or others and using public funds for parties.

FOX 8 reached out to all the City Council members for a response Wednesday. Councilman Brossett responded saying all of his purchases were for legitimate city purposes, and that he kept accurate records.

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