ZURIK: City to comb through Mayor Cantrell’s hotel upgrades amid Fox 8 investigation
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - After Fox 8 first started asking questions about New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s hotel room upgrades on some of her trips in 2022, the city now says it will take a closer look to determine if the mayor and a member of her security detail owe taxpayers money.
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.
An extensive Fox 8 review of public records uncovered that Mayor Cantrell upgraded hotel rooms on some of her trips in 2022. The City of New Orleans’ travel policy outlines that employees must obtain the lowest possible nightly lodging rates and that travel upgrades at the city’s expense are not permitted.
In January, Cantrell went to Washington, D.C., and stayed at the Hotel Washington. A member of her security team -- NOPD officer Jeffrey Vappie -- accompanied her. Receipts show Vappie’s room cost $916. However, Cantrell’s room was nearly $2,500, after she upgraded to a king suite. On that one trip, Cantrell may have overcharged taxpayers nearly $1,600 in upgrade costs.
Fox 8 discovered several other upgrades in November. On Nov. 28, our team sent an email to the city’s communications office, asking whether the mayor would pay back the upgrade expenses. However, the office never responded.
Days later, Fox 8 reporter David Jones attended a news conference where he asked the mayor’s Communications Director Gregory Joseph whether Cantrell planned to pay back the upgrade costs.
Joseph said, “The city has never paid for any of the mayor’s upgrades. You found upgrades. The mayor is always responsible for paying for the upgrades. So, the city hasn’t been on the hook for any of the hotel room upgrades by the mayor. So, there is no refund or reimbursement needed to be made. … You’re allowed to upgrade your room as long as you’re the one paying for it. The city has never paid for any upgrades that the mayor has made.”
But since the records indicate that statement may have been inaccurate, Fox 8 sent another email to the team, this time, copying Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño and City Attorney Donesia Turner. In that second email, we laid out each trip where we believed either Cantrell or Vappie upgraded rooms at the expense of taxpayers. We also pointed out that those documents showed no record of reimbursement by Cantrell or Vappie.
Our list included a trip to San Francisco, where Cantrell again upgraded to a king suite. It also pointed out that on a canceled trip to Singapore, Vappie had booked a hotel room that was over $2,000 more expensive than those of other travelers on the trip. When that trip was canceled, the city was reimbursed for airfare expenses, but documents don’t indicate that the hotel room costs were refunded to the city.
Dillard University political analyst Dr. Robert Collins says it’s unclear whether the city isn’t keeping track of the upgrades or isn’t being transparent about the spending.
“Either the city needs to do a better job of auditing the mayor’s records, or they just need to be more transparent with the general public about how their tax money’s being spent,” Collins said.
After receiving our second email with the detailed list of expenses, the city sent Fox 8 the following statement attributed to Joseph: “Due to the high volume of records and documentation accompanied with City-related travel activities, as required per City policy, our office is in the process of conducting a thorough, microscopic review of all expenses and upgrades associated with all recent airfare and lodging accommodations, both domestically and internationally. The administration remains committed to ensuring this above-board process is completed with the utmost transparency on behalf of the hard-working, dedicated taxpayers of this City.”
The head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, Rafael Goyeneche, believes cc’ing the Chief Administrative Officer and City Attorney may have prompted the communications department to respond to the request.
“I mean, there are people there that are trying to do the right thing,” Goyeneche said. “They’re truly embarrassed and disturbed by this. They probably are not even aware that this transpired, until this was brought to their attention by outside sources like you and your station.”
Goyeneche says the city’s response at the news conference should concern taxpayers. He believes both the New Orleans Office of Inspector General and Federal Investigators will be looking into what Fox 8 uncovered.
“So the question is, was that intentional?” Goyeneche said. “Did someone mislead that spokesperson? We don’t know the answer to that. What we do know is that there’s an investigation going on that goes beyond just what the news media is doing. So, I would assure the public that if the investigation is being done and it is being looked into, the authorities that are looking into this are going to look into all the details and not going to take anybody at their word.
“They’re going to subpoena records. And they’re going to get a thorough assessment of how public funds have been used by this administration.”
Lodging records indicate Cantrell may have overcharged taxpayers nearly $3,000 and Vappie about $2,000.
Fox 8 also found Cantrell charged taxpayers for first-class train travel for herself and Vappie. While city policy clearly states air travel and lodging can’t be upgraded, the policy doesn’t specifically mention train travel.
“There is no train policy,” Joseph said. “I asked the CAO’s office that, and they said there is no train ticket policy. So, I can’t speak to them going on the ACELA as opposed to the non-ACELA train. But I don’t believe that violated city policy because there is no train policy.”
While the policy doesn’t specifically mention trains, Collins believes those upgrades go against the purpose of the policy.
“Obviously, the spirit of the policy to save the taxpayers money is that any city employee -- and, of course, we’ve already established that the mayor is a city employee -- should travel using the least-expensive means possible,” Collins said. “And that any extra travel, first-grade luxury upgrades, etcetera, should be paid for by the individual and not by the taxpayers.”
Vappie no longer serves as part of Cantrell’s security detail. The NOPD launched an investigation into his timesheets and reassigned him after our investigations began to air.
Cantrell is currently under investigation by both the Orleans Inspector General’s Office and the FBI.
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