ZURIK: Mayor Cantrell possibly violating policy using city-owned apartment for personal use
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A two-month-long FOX 8 investigation finds New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is possibly breaking city policy and maybe even state law, spending much of her time at a city-owned apartment, possibly without paying rent.
FOX 8 investigators spent weeks surveilling the Upper Pontalba apartment building and obtained 24-hour surveillance video from a camera right outside of the door next to Jackson Square.
We combed through more than 630 hours of that video, from a camera operated by the city’s French Market Corporation, and found Mayor Cantrell at the apartment almost every day over a 26-day period. She often stays for hours at a time.
We saw Mayor Cantrell showing up early in workout clothes, leaving to take walks along the river, and watering plants on the balcony. One night in August, she did not leave the apartment until almost 1:30 a.m. The mayor spent the night at the apartment several times in the surveillance video we combed through.
The city owns the historic building on the edge of Jackson Square and the French Market Corporation manages it. According to the French Market Corporation, the two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment has a fair market value of $2,991 a month.
The city of New Orleans has a standards of behavior policy that each city employee must sign and return. It states “use of city property is for work-related purposes, and not personal benefit.”
Some say the mayor is essentially giving herself a perk worth thousands of dollars each month.
“If the mayor is not paying rent, it doesn’t look good,” Dillard University public policy professor Robert Collins says. “It certainly will not look good for the taxpayers. I mean, here we have a situation. The taxpayers are already concerned about the mayor using their money in an efficient manner. She’s been taking long-distance trips and flying first-class. Her own city attorney has ruled that that is a violation of city policy. So now, if we find out that the mayor is using a city property, and the city rules require her to pay rent on that property, and if she is not in fact paying rent on that property, then that’s a problem. Because that I mean, she does not personally own that property, that property is owned by the taxpayers. And so the taxpayers should receive fair compensation for the use of their property.”
“I think it’s another indication of the distorted sense of entitlement that the mayor has,” Rafael Goyeneche of the Metropolitan Crime Commission says.
Mayor Cantrell says she’s using the property as past mayors have. Former city employees tell FOX 8 the apartment was previously used for meetings or for out-of-town dignitaries and only occasionally for the mayor to stay at or use.
“The mayor’s usage of the city-owned apartment at the Pontalba is consistent with the usage of past mayors,” Mayor Cantrell’s Director of Communications Gregory Joseph said in a statement. “In addition, the most recent franchise agreement contains no rules governing how that unit should be used. Lastly, according to the French Market Corporation, this mayor and past mayors were under no obligation to pay for usage of that unit.”
The city sent FOX 8 the franchise agreement cited in the mayor’s statement. It does not relate to the city’s use of the Upper Pontalba apartment. The franchise agreement is a 2013 council ordinance that merged the former Upper Pontalba Building Restoration Corporation into the French Market Corporation.
Goyeneche and the MCC have been conducting their own investigation and sent a letter on Thursday (Sept. 29) to the City Council asking for an independent review.
The group says they too received “credible information and documentation from multiple independent sources” that Mayor Cantrell has been “inhabiting and/or personally utilizing” the Jackson Square apartment.
The group says their sources regularly saw Mayor Cantrell coming and going from the apartment in a city vehicle, sometimes parked illegally. Sources also reported seeing Mayor Cantrell on the balcony of the apartment, putting up a privacy screen to obstruct the view of the balcony, and seeing packages addressed to her in the building’s mailroom.
The MCC is asking for the council to independently investigate the claims to determine if and for how long the mayor was using the apartment for personal use and whether or not she was paying rent.
FOX 8 surveillance began in late July. In our review, the mayor stayed at the apartment a handful of nights. Most days, she arrives early in the morning, changes into work clothes, leaves, and usually returns between 9 and 11 p.m.
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