Zurik: Former Cantrell protectors describe holding mayor’s purse, doing her shopping, chauffeuring daughter

Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 10:34 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Among hours of accidentally released recordings from the NOPD’s internal investigation into the timesheets of officer Jeffrey Vappie, current and former members of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s security team described the work environment on the mayor’s detail.

Two former members of her security detail spoke more candidly than current members to Public Integrity Bureau investigators. Officer Kristy Johnson-Stokes said protecting the mayor sometimes included duties outside the scope of security.

PIB interviewer: “So, in your time working with the mayor, kinda give me an idea: Was there ever instances where you were asked to do something that wasn’t wrong, but you felt it was, like, outside of the boundaries of your job? But you still did it because you was requested, do you recall any of that?”

Johnson-Stokes: “Well, I’ll say this: There’s a fine line between being an executive protection and being an assistant. So … there were some things you’d think like, ‘This ain’t my job.’

PIB interviewer: “Give me an example of some of the stuff that you recall like that.”

Johnson-Stokes: “I think the main thing for the team -- especially the guys -- who was holding that purse? Like, we need our hands, you know? Like, we’re not supposed to be holding your bag. But, you know, you might need an assistant for that. What else? Oh, question?”

PIB interviewer: “No, go ahead.”

Johnson-Stokes: “Oh, um, running errands. Sometimes, you know, she would forget something or need something. You know. So, whatever you think an assistant might do, sometimes -- more times than not -- we would be doing that as well.”

NOPD investigators interviewed Johnson-Stokes as part of their investigation into Vappie’s timesheets. The investigation started after Fox 8 found Vappie spending long hours during the workday with Mayor Cantrell inside a city-owned apartment in the French Quarter.

Johnson-Stokes worked for Cantrell for four years, and had prior experience in executive protection. She and retired Sgt. Wondell Smith gave investigators insight into what it was like to work under Mayor Cantrell.

PIB interviewer: “What about that mayor’s conversation with y’all? How she would talk to y’all regularly?”

Smith: “Well…”

PIB interviewer: “You can be frank.”

Smith: “Regular. But then you got your butt ran down from head to toe. Potty mouth, I call it. You know what potty mouth means. So, you just had to, you know, you dealt with it the way you ... everybody dealt with it differently, I guess. The way I dealt with it, I internalized it. Like, OK, and I tried to explain myself. Like, as the sergeant of the unit, you know, this is why we are doing what we doing, you know. Oh, they didn’t care. They’re gonna do what they want to do.”

Investigators asked both former security officers about Fox 8′s prior investigations. Hours of footage from a public security camera showed Vappie spending long hours at the Pontalba apartment, leaving to exercise with the mayor and watering plants on the apartment’s balcony.

Johnson-Stokes: “So from the news, I can understand, like I said, sometimes the watering the plants, if you see that. I’ve seen that on the news, right? So, like I mentioned earlier, that’s one of those ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, you need an assistant’-type deals, right? So, but if she asked, I mean, it’s not breaking my arm, not breaking my leg. It’s not against the law to water plants. So, I mean, I don’t think anybody would tell her, ‘No, ma’am. I’m not gonna water your plants for you.’ I mean, I’ve been asked, ‘Hey, Miss Kristy? Can you take my card and go to this department store?’ And we’ve gone to a party next, right? ‘So, I didn’t get a gift. Can you take my card and go to the store and get this item for me? And have it wrapped and come back, so we can go to this event and I can have a gift?’ That’s not in my scope. But, it’s not my money, it’s not my, you know, so that’s what you did.”

PIB interviewer: “Did you feel like you could say no?”

Johnson-Stokes: “No! Now, if it was something I knew was against the law, definitely, I would say no. But that might have been something I didn’t feel like doing, that wasn’t in the scope of my duties. But it wasn’t against departmental rules and regulations that I thought of -- that I knew of -- and it wasn’t breaking any laws.”

Fox 8′s stories showed members of the security team often worked long hours, even when Cantrell was out of town. Smith and Johnson-Stokes said they often were busy helping Cantrell’s family members while she was traveling.

PIB interviewer: “When the mayor wasn’t there … what was the schedule like?”

Johnson-Stokes: “The schedule was the same. Sometimes, she would give us tasks to do. We would be tasked with picking up her daughter. Sometimes bringing her daughter to school, sometimes picking her daughter up from school. Bring her to tutoring, bringing the daughter to hair appointments, bringing the daughter to sports practices, picking her up from sports practices. So, whatever I’m saying that we bring her to, most likely we would pick her up from. So that day would be, especially, the evenings would be filled.”

Smith worked for three mayoral administrations, serving under Ray Nagin, Mitch Landrieu and Cantrell. But despite his serving for 18 years in the role, Cantrell eventually removed Smith from her protection team.

PIB interviewer: “At some point, after 18 years of being there, you were transferred.”

Smith: “Right.”

PIB Interviewer: “Can you talk to me about that?”

Smith: “To this day, I cannot tell you why I was transferred. Not that I can’t tell you, let me rephrase that. I have no damn clue. I know it hurt like hell. I know that much.”

PIB interviewer: “Tell me about how you felt.”

Smith: “I felt like (expletive). … I mean, I’m in the truck and, um, dropping her off. She going, you know, to a function. And I get a call.”

Smith said he was surprised when he got that reassignment call. He said he didn’t think anything was wrong, until he found out he was being removed from the team.

Smith: “All day (we were) talking, laughing and, you know, having a good day. So it caught me off guard. I ain’t gonna lie.”

Smith was the ranking officer on the team. Prior to his removal, other officers on the detail answered to him. He described helping to mediate disputes and overseeing timesheets before they were submitted to another sergeant for approval. Smith added that if he had been on the team when Vappie began clocking long hours, he believes he would have confronted both Vappie and the mayor to check whether the time was correct before sending it in.

When Cantrell removed Smith, she didn’t replace him with another ranking officer, meaning no one from the executive protection team oversaw the timesheets. Smith said in his interview that the current setup is ripe for potential conflicts and abuse. He retired from the NOPD in 2021.

PIB interviewer: “What I’d like for you to do now for me, sergeant, if you don’t mind, talk to me about your feelings about being one of the longest-reigning supervisors that ever worked in that unit. From where it was, to where it is, and how you feel about now. Kinda give me your insight.”

Smith: “I’m proud of the work we did when I was there. Like I said before, I think the office turned upside down. You know, that hurts. … I think, like I said before, you gotta have a rank in there. … And I think the rank gotta be strong and gotta do SOP standard police stuff. Stick to his guns and keep it straight. And the guys gotta know if they mess up, they can’t go around that rank and talk to the mayor, no. There has to be some repercussions. But once again, the way the structure is, let’s just think. It’s flipped to where the police chief is elected, as long as he serves under the mayor, that’ll never happen. Never. And that’s my personal opinion. That’ll never happen. Cause who is the police chief’s boss? The mayor.”

While officers said some of the duties were outside the scope of protecting the mayor, sources tell Fox 8 that security officers being asked to drive family members around is not uncommon, and that past mayors have asked security members to perform some similar duties.

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