ZURIK: FBI expands investigation into Mayor LaToya Cantrell
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Mayor LaToya Cantrell claims the FBI probe into purchases made by her image consultant doesn’t directly impact her, but Fox 8 has learned federal agents recently expanded their investigation.
The FBI is digging into thousands of dollars in purchases made by Cantrell’s stylist, Tanya Blunt Haynes. Cantrell was asked about the status of that investigation Wednesday (Jan. 4).
“So, that is under investigation by the FBI, and which I am not affiliated directly,” Cantrell said. “I know that that’s moving through that process, and I know that I’m open to any investigations that involve me and or people that work with me or for me and I’ll leave that there.”
However, sources now tell Fox 8 that in addition to looking into clothing purchases and money being spent from Cantrell’s campaign account, investigators are also asking questions surrounding a former member of Cantrell’s security detail, Jeffrey Vappie. Cantrell’s schedule, the time she and Vappie spent at a city-owned apartment, and her relationship with the NOPD now are being scrutinized.
Fox 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti says it’s not uncommon for FBI investigations to expand as new details emerge.
“They’re like the tide rolling in, they can look at everything,” Raspanti said. “Once they start looking at you, they keep looking.”
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- Inspector General launches investigation into Cantrell’s use of city-owned apartment
Federal prosecutor Jordan Ginsberg is leading the Cantrell investigation. He’s previously prosecuted former North Shore District Attorney Walter Reed and former State Senator Karen Carter Peterson. Raspanti has tried cases against Ginsberg and describes him as “thorough” and “deliberate.”
Fox 8′s prior investigations found Cantrell and Vappie spending hours during the workday inside the city-owned Upper Pontalba Apartment in the French Quarter. Vappie, a New Orleans police officer, often was on the clock for the NOPD during his time there. Our reports also raised questions about his timesheets and Cantrell’s schedule.
Now, sources tell Fox 8 that federal investigators are asking questions about Vappie, Cantrell’s use of the Pontalba, and the mayor’s schedule.
“It has been my experience that once you are under investigation -- this is not saying you’re a target yet, but under investigation -- they’re going to look at as many things as they think are relevant,” Raspanti said. “And if things are brought to their attention by other people, they’re going to look at it. They’re going to look at just about everything that can remotely be deemed as relevant to their investigation.”
Raspanti said he believes the most significant questions from Fox 8′s investigations might center around Vappie and his timesheets. He charged taxpayers for long periods of time while with the mayor and while serving as her security detail on trips.
For example, on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, Cantrell and Vappie returned to New Orleans from Washington, D.C. at around 5:30 p.m. Cantrell’s schedule showed the late afternoon flight was the only item on her calendar that day. Yet, on his NOPD timesheet, Vappie charged taxpayers for a 16-hour workday, from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
In April 2022, Vappie traveled with Cantrell to San Francisco for a conference on climate change. The meeting wrapped up at noon on Friday, April 8, but Cantrell and Vappie didn’t leave the city until the next night, taking a red-eye flight back to New Orleans. They left San Francisco at 11:00 p.m. on April 9 and arrived in New Orleans at 5:22 a.m. on April 10. Fox 8 confirmed the flight was on time. Vappie charged taxpayers for 15 hours of work on April 9, and another 15 hours on April 10. So while the only thing on the schedule for both of those days was one flight, Vappie charged taxpayers for 30 hours of work.
Raspanti said he believes these are just some of the timesheet questions the FBI will investigate.
“He clearly has already raised their antenna and correctly so,” Raspanti said. “Because from what I understand, when you’re paid by an entity to do X at this period of time, and you’re not doing X during this period of time, you’re doing something totally different and still getting the paycheck, that’s payroll fraud. And so, whether or not they feel they have enough to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt, we’ll see. And how much of that bleeds over into what the mayor is doing, we’ll see.
“But I’m telling you, they’re going to be looking at it. They’re going to continue to look and expand what they’re doing until they get to the point where they say, ‘We’ve got a case,’ or ‘We don’t have a case.’”
Cantrell has refused to answer Fox 8′s questions about Vappie, including their relationship and the findings that showed the two of them spending hours of the workday together inside the apartment.
Cantrell has called the use of the security camera video in Fox 8′s reporting inappropriate. The video came from a taxpayer-owned camera. Fox 8 received it through a public records request from the French Market Corporation. Cantrell also appoints the entire board of the French Market Corporation, and the public camera was installed outside the door to the apartment during her first term in office.
Raspanti said he believes the federal investigation is in its early stages.
“When you’re looking at an elected official, the impact of when they were voted in and when their term ends always kind of comes into play,” Raspanti said. “But my sense of it is that the investigation is not in the latter stages yet. I think it would be fair to say it’s more in the earlier part of their investigation because they’re piecing things together.”
Fox 8 reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s office about this story. But, per office policy, the office would neither confirm nor deny an active investigation.
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