Council members call for federal monitors to investigate Cantrell’s possible conflicts of interest

Published: Nov. 10, 2022 at 5:34 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Two New Orleans City Council members have asked a federal judge to launch an independent investigation into allegations and possible conflicts of interest involving Mayor LaToya Cantrell and a city cop.

The allegations were raised in a Lee Zurik investigation which showed that New Orleans police officer Jeffrey Vappie, a member of Mayor Cantrell’s security team, spent dozens of hours inside a city-owned apartment during work hours.

Fox 8 analyzed 45 days of surveillance video from a public camera right outside the Upper Pontalba Apartment entrance. On 35 of those days, Mayor Cantrell was spotted at the apartment. Vappie was there on 27 of those days, sometimes more than once a day.

Just before Zurik’s investigation aired, the NOPD reassigned Vappie from the mayor’s security team and the department’s Public Integrity Bureau launched an internal investigation into whether he logged more than 16 hours and 35 minutes of work in any 24-hour period. Council members say the PIB investigation isn’t enough.

“When you have these issues about double billing and what’s going on.... this is just another way of looking into it,” said City Councilmember Joe Giarusso. “Police do have their internal PIB [investigation] but given everything that’s at stake, it needs to be separate and outside of the department.”

The surveillance video shows Cantrell walking to and from the apartment -- more often than not -- by herself, without any security present, and Vappie often coming and going alone, many times spending hours inside the apartment while on the clock.

“Mr. Vappie, relative to my visits or time that I spent at the Pontalba, which it has been deemed aligned with the uses... that’s and according to the uses of the apartment. Relative to Mr. Vappie, I would say that the PIB investigation relative to payroll and uses... that that will come out in the investigation,” Mayor Cantrell said. “Other than that, my time spent at the Pontalba is not an issue.”

Councilmembers wrote a letter to federal judge Susie Morgan, who also oversees the NOPD consent decree reform program. In their letter, council members Morrell and Giarusso said swift action is required to preserve the integrity of the investigations of the mayor.

The Fox 8 investigation also found that Vappie earned more than $120,000 a year leading some to question the impact on other officers making far less at a time when the NOPD desperately needs to retain officers.

“Money may be a part of it, but there’s an intangible part of it that’s just as important. How do we make sure we are supporting morale and things are being enforced evenly?” said Giarusso.

Council members worry that the controversy could sidetrack city priorities.

“I am not focusing on what she’s involved in. I will say that it’s a new twist. I know if we’re going to be successful, we need all hands on deck working on issues that affect the city,” said councilmember Oliver Thomas.

“I will say this, I can’t allow the City Council or myself to be distracted by this. We have important work to do for the people of this city... especially right now with the budget,” said Council President Helena Moreno.

The city’s budget includes tens of millions of dollars for a police department looking for more money to retain and hire officers in a badly depleted force.

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