Zurik: Mayor Cantrell allowed family members to use city-owned Upper Pontalba apartment, emails show
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Newly obtained emails show New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell may have crossed an ethical line and possibly violated state law by letting out-of-town family members stay at a city-owned apartment.
The French Market Corporation, a city entity whose board is appointed by the mayor, controls the Upper Pontalba Apartments and gives use of one of the units to the mayor’s office.
Mayor Cantrell has repeatedly claimed her use of the apartment is in line with past mayors. She’s also claimed it is her apartment that she has a right to utilize. Video from a security camera outside the building shows Cantrell used the city-owned apartment at all hours of the day, and sometimes stayed overnight.
However, former mayor Marc Morial says he never stayed at the apartment overnight, and that the apartment was not meant for personal use.
“It’s not meant to be a residence for the mayor, period,” Morial said.
Fox 8 has previously reported that former mayors mainly used the apartment to host dignitaries and hold meetings.
Emails obtained by Fox 8 show Cantrell allowed out-of-town family members to use the apartment. Metropolitan Crime Commission president Rafael Goyeneche says that’s an ethics violation, and possibly a violation of state law.
“I think this is confirmation of the distorted sense of entitlement that she has,” Goyeneche said, “that a public asset can be used by her personally and for her own family members. These emails and communications just basically document that. And I think it’s a sad statement of an abuse of authority by the mayor of the City of New Orleans.”
Fox 8 filed a public records request and obtained emails sent by Cantrell regarding the apartment and family members and other guests staying there.
On March 3, 2020, Mayor Cantrell sent the French Market Corporation an email with a long list of needs for the apartment. That included a light bulb that needed to be replaced, a window that needed caulking, an issue with the water heater, and having someone call Cox Cable to have the cable box in the master bedroom turned on. Cantrell claimed her Uncle Mike left the list of repairs that were needed and asked to make sure maintenance handled it.
“This is not being used for public purposes. There is no public purpose in this. This is a private benefit for her and her family members, and that’s an abuse of authority,” Goyeneche said.
On June 29, 2021, Mayor Cantrell emailed the head of the French Market Corporation writing that she had water damage in the apartment and that the floor in the entrance to the bedroom had buckled. Cantrell added that she had family staying in the apartment days later. An email that Friday updated Cantrell about the repairs, to which Cantrell responded “My Auntie Donna and Uncle Mike are cool people and very appreciative, so am I.”
Goyeneche says the emails show Cantrell is utilizing the apartment like a hotel or guest home.
“It’s an extension of her house, in her opinion,” Goyeneche said. “You know, ‘I can have guests in my house, but I can also give them use of an apartment in the most historic building with one of the greatest views in the city of New Orleans, overlooking Jackson Square.’ And she doesn’t own it. The mayor’s office owns it and the mayor works for the people of the city of New Orleans. And the mayor believes that the people of the city of New Orleans work for her, because that’s evidenced by her approach to how she’s utilizing their property.”
Dillard University political analyst Dr. Robert Collins places blame on Mayor Cantrell, but also says the French Market Corporation is at fault for not having written guidelines for the city’s property.
“There should be a written set of regulations saying, ‘This is what the property is used for,’ ‘These are the people who have authority to use the property.’ And that’s standard,” Collins said. “That would not be an unusual request for the French Market Corporation to do that. That is standard. If a public agency is charged with maintaining and possessing public property, it is that public agency’s job, responsibility, to formulate a set of rules and regulations for the use of that public property to make sure that taxpayer assets are used in an efficient manner.”
Public records show Mayor Cantrell’s husband Jason has an Aunt Donna and Uncle Mike who live in Texas. Days after Cantrell sent the email about her Aunt Donna and Uncle Mike staying at the Upper Pontalba apartment over Essence Fest weekend, Cantrell’s relative Donna Brousseau made a $100 contribution to Cantrell’s campaign.
Fox 8 reached out to the Brousseaus, to ask if they stayed at the apartment and gave a campaign contribution after one stay. They didn’t respond.
A French Market Corporation rent study shows fair market monthly rent for the unit owned by the city is about $2,900. Goyeneche believes the apartment should be put back into commerce, with the money from rent going to help the city.
“If the mayor wants to do the right thing for the people of the city of New Orleans and remove any appearance of impropriety, I believe that it should be under her leadership that she goes out and says, ‘We’re going to stop using this and we’re going to return this unit back into commerce.’ And let’s offer it for rent and let the market set its market rate. And let’s start to use the funds generated from this for the maintenance of the building and for other official public purposes, not for the private benefit of the mayor or her immediate family members,” Goyeneche said.
Fox 8 reached out to Mayor Cantrell’s office and asked if family members stayed at the apartment, as well as about the campaign contribution made by Brousseau. Cantrell’s office didn’t respond.
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