ZURIK: Mayor Cantrell’s hotel room upgrades may violate city policy

Updated: Nov. 17, 2022 at 10:03 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell could owe taxpayers thousands of dollars after upgrading hotel rooms and travel accommodations. The mayor already paid back nearly $30,000 in first-class airfare upgrades after violating a city policy on flights.

However, at the time, the city didn’t look at her hotel room upgrades. The city policy on lodging rates reads: “Upgrades for hotel accommodations at the expense of the city are not permitted unless the hotel is unable to provide allowable accommodations at the time necessary to carry out the purpose of travel.”

When Cantrell traveled to San Francisco, Calif. in April, she and the city employees who traveled with her stayed at a Hyatt hotel. Records show the cost for NewOrleans Police Officer Jeffery Vappie, who served as her security detail on the trip, cost $1,200. Cantrell’s room was upgraded to a king suite and cost nearly $2,000.

When Cantrell went to Reno, Nevada in June, her room cost hundreds more than other city employees who traveled.

In January, Cantrell went to Washington, DC, and stayed at the Hotel Washington. Vappie again served as the mayor’s security for the trip. His room cost $916, while Cantrell’s room cost nearly $2,500. She again stayed in a king suite.

The description of the room on the hotel’s website reads, “Make yourself at home in our bright and airy King Suite offering a wall of windows, a feature table, a floor-to-ceiling Amit Greenberg mural, a separate bedroom, liberal closet space and an oversized bathroom with marble vanities, and a separate shower and tub.”

On just that trip, Cantrell might have overcharged taxpayers nearly $1,600 in upgraded hotel costs.

Head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission Rafael Goyeneche believes the upgrades are a violation of city policy.

“So, the mayor may need to take out another loan to repay the city. She repaid about $28,000 and some change. And I think this is another prohibited expenditure of public funds that you’ve documented right here,” Goyeneche said.

Over the summer, Cantrell canceled a planned trip to Singapore. However, the cancellation was after the city had already booked hotel rooms for the travelers. Cantrell didn’t have a room booked for that trip, but Vappie and the other travelers did. In that case, Vappie’s room was almost double that of other city employees.


Federal authorities investigating clothing purchases linked to Mayor Cantrell

Mayor Cantrell defends use of Pontalba Apartment

Concerns about when Mayor Cantrell chooses to have security and when she doesn’t

Cantrell’s calendar raises more questions about time spent inside Upper Pontalba apartment

Inspector General launches investigation into Cantrell’s use of city-owned apartment

One city employee, Zachary Monroe, who works for the office of Resilience & Sustainability, attended the trip to Singapore, however, Cantrell and two other city employees who were scheduled to go did not. The city was credited for those canceled flights, but the city hasn’t provided any documentation showing unused rooms were reimbursed. The cost of the unused hotel rooms was over $6,100.

FOX 8 also found that Cantrell and Vappie traveled first class by train on a 2021 trip from Boston to New York City. That upgrade cost taxpayers an additional $228.

Dillard University political analyst Robert Collins also believes Cantrell should repay the money from the upgrades.

“If she’s charging upgrades to the city, then yes, that’s a violation of the policy. She should just maintain and live by the same rules that every other city employee has to live by,” Collins said.

Vappie’s timesheets also raise questions about Cantrell’s security details. On the Jan. 2022 trip to Washington, DC, Uber receipts show Vappie returned to the hotel at 7:51 p.m. on Jan. 20. However, his timesheet shows he billed for another three hours of overtime, going off the clock at 11 p.m. It’s unclear what city work he was doing to continue getting paid.

Vappie also accompanied Cantrell for the scrapped Artemis Rocket launch in Florida in August. Cantrell and Vappie arrived on Saturday. On Sunday, the only thing on Cantrell’s schedule was to check in between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. However, that day, Vappie billed taxpayers for 14 hours of work, from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. He apparently got less than three hours of sleep, going back on the clock at 1 a.m. on Monday morning, before bus boarding began at 2:15 a.m. The announcement that the launch would be postponed came early that morning, but Vappie stayed on the clock for 21 hours straight that day, billing taxpayers until 10 p.m.

Tuesday, the pair flew back on a 3:25 p.m. flight that landed in New Orleans at 4:10 p.m. That day, Vappie claimed on his timesheet that he was on the clock from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m.

Questions about Vappie’s timesheets were first uncovered when FOX 8 started looking into Mayor Cantrell’s use of the city-owned Upper Pontalba Apartments.

Security camera video obtained through a public records request showed Cantrell spending long hours during the workday at the apartment. A review of the video and comparisons to public records showed Cantrell sometimes missed or canceled events on her calendar and sent few work-related emails during the long stretches at the apartment. She also stayed overnight at the apartment on some occasions.

Questions about Mayor Cantrell's schedule and time at the Upper Pontalba Apartments
Questions about Mayor Cantrell's schedule and time at the Upper Pontalba Apartments(French Market Corporation)

The New Orleans Office of Inspector General is now investigating Cantrell’s use of the apartment. City policy states that city-owned property cannot be used for personal benefit. Cantrell maintains she uses the Pontalba the same as other mayors have in the past. However, several sources have told FOX 8 that’s not true.

More: Former mayoral administrations say city-owned Pontalba apartment was never lived in

A picture from a Fox 8 source shows Cantrell has artwork hanging in the apartment with her last name on it. Cantrell’s campaign manager has claimed the Pontalba is “literally the Mayor’s apartment.”

“Let’s be clear,” Collins said, “This is not the mayor’s apartment. This is the people’s apartment. The people of New Orleans own that apartment. In the city of New Orleans, we do not Have anything similar to a governor’s mansion or the White House … It is not literally the mayor’s apartment. It is literally the city of New Orleans’ apartment. Literally the taxpayers’ apartment, literally the people’s apartment. The people own that apartment. The mayor does not own it. So, she can use it for official functions during her official duties as mayor, that is lawful and allowable. But it is not literally her apartment. I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of ownership within the Cantrell administration over what is personal property and what is taxpayer property. And I think that’s what’s causing the confusion here.”

See a spelling or grammar error in our story? Click Here to report it. Please include the headline.