ZURIK: Cantrell administration turns over NOPD timesheets after Fox 8 threatens lawsuit
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - After a Fox 8 attorney got involved, the City of New Orleans released public documents Wednesday (Nov. 23) it initially refused to hand over.
On Tuesday, Fox 8′s attorney sent a letter to the city attorney’s office threatening to file a lawsuit if the documents were not released.
Fox 8 requested timesheets for NOPD officer Jeffrey Vappie, a member of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s security team, as part of our Outside the Office investigation.
The investigations raised questions about how Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Vappie, who is a member of her security detail, spend their time and taxpayer money. Security camera video, also obtained through public records requests, showed Cantrell and Vappie spending hours during the workday inside a city-owned apartment. Vappie’s timesheets showed he was often on the clock for the NOPD during that time and was the only member of the mayor’s four-person security team who entered the apartment.
Fox 8 filed the public records request for additional timesheets for Vappie on November 11. However, the city denied that request.
“We know the timesheets are public records,” Fox 8 attorney Scott Sternberg said. “Why these particular time sheets are not being immediately produced, we’re not sure.”
Sternberg sent City Attorney Donesia Turner the letter and demanded that the records be released. The letter says there is no valid reason that the documents were not immediately produced to Fox 8. It goes on to say if the request is not satisfied, a lawsuit will be filed to gain access to the public records. Turner responded to that email saying she will review the letter and advise.
Our investigations also found that Vappie frequently served as Cantrell’s security on work trips, but his timesheets raised questions.
For example, in late August, Mayor Cantrell made a three-day trip to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with the Department of Justice. The mayor arrived on Sun., Aug. 21, after an early morning flight from New Orleans. Vappie accompanied her on the trip. The mayor had no meetings on her calendar that day, but Vappie billed taxpayers for 15 hours of work that day, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The next day, the mayor’s calendar only listed one event, a 1:30 p.m. meeting. That day, Vappie claimed to work another 15 hours, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Cantrell and Vappie flew back to New Orleans on Tues., Aug. 23. Records show the flight arrived before 10 a.m. The mayor’s schedule shows two other members of her security team were on duty that day. Despite not being assigned to protect the mayor, Vappie continued to get paid after landing in New Orleans, going off the clock at 9 p.m.
The findings from prior stories prompted us to ask for Vappie’s timesheets from Sept. 24 through Nov. 11. During that time, Vappie accompanied Cantrell on a trip to Beverly Hills where Cantrell attended a dinner with Brad Pitt. Fox 8 wanted to see the hours Vappie clocked on his timesheet during that trip.
OUTSIDE THE OFFICE
“The city is very good about turning over these obvious public records 99 percent of the time. What’s so different about these timesheets?” Sternberg said. “I think we’re gonna find out.”
Following our initial stories, the NOPD reassigned Vappie and launched an internal investigation. The city told us it couldn’t hand over the records because of the Public Integrity Bureau investigation into Vappie.
However, Sternberg believes that’s a misinterpretation of the public records law.
“The exception that exists to protect the government and government actors when they are investigating crimes or administrative actions is important. It’s important that the government be able to investigate itself or an accused criminal without the defense attorney or folks like you and me coming in and public records requesting all their notes, right? But the key word there is notes, their investigative notes. These timesheets are not created for the investigation. They are part of an investigation itself. So, the fact that they’ve been taken and put inside that investigation file doesn’t make them non-public, in our view,” Sternberg said.
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