Zurik: No records to support three recent claims by Cantrell administration

Published: Sep. 20, 2023 at 10:46 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 22, 2023 at 5:07 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In a late August news conference, City of New Orleans communications director Gregory Joseph blasted the city council’s decision to take control of the city-owned Upper Pontalba apartment away from Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

“It’s not a proud day for anyone who appreciates the culture and the history of the city of New Orleans,. Nobody should be proud about what the city council just perpetrated,” Joseph said. “You know, this has been in the city’s possession for decades. You know, we have cared for it, we’ve nurtured it, we have respected it. Hell, we even watered its plants. This residence is a part of our history. It’s a part of our story. And the city council just put it up on Craigslist. So, you can imagine that, you know, we’re a little bit sad and a part of our city’s been ripped away.”

One unit in the Upper Pontalba Apartments has been in the city’s control for decades. However, a series of Fox 8 investigations showed Cantrell spending long hours during the workday inside the city-owned apartment, often with a member of her security team, NOPD officer Jeffrey Vappie.

The council determined Cantrell’s use of the apartment was beyond the scope of how the unit had been used by past administrations. The vote returned the apartment to the control of the French Market Corporation, meaning it will be returned to commerce.

Joseph blasted that decision, saying the city no longer would be able to house visiting dignitaries in the unit.

“It’s been one of the most important places for people to be hosting dignitaries of foreign and domestic and international people and showing the beauty, graceness (sic) of the city,” Joseph said.

However, since LaToya Cantrell became mayor, it doesn’t appear that any visiting dignitary has stayed at the apartment.

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WVUE asked the city for any document that showed dignitaries the mayor allowed to stay in the apartment. In a response to a public records request, the city said the French Market Corporation would be the custodian of the records.

WVUE filed another request with the FMC. Deputy director Robert Gurtner IV responded, “FMC does not maintain records of any Tenant or Tenant’s guests’ use of any of the apartments in the Upper Pontalba Building, including the city apartment. FMC does not have any records responsive to this request.”

WVUE then emailed the city again, asking for any list of dignitaries that had used the apartment, but the city never responded.

Dillard University political analyst Dr. Robert Collins said he believes if any visiting dignitaries had used the apartment, there would be some type of record.

“If any dignitary had stayed there, there would be a record of it. Either the mayor’s office would have a record, or the French Market Corporation would have a record,” Collins said. “I’m assuming, if it was a dignitary, there would probably be some security arrangements, which would mean that NOPD would have a record. If they were … an important-enough dignitary, they might have more than one law enforcement agency protecting them. So, someone would have a record.

“There would be a public record -- somewhere -- either of the real estate entity or of the government agency or of the security operations.”

Joseph also blamed the New Orleans City Council for taking the apartment away from the mayor. Joseph claimed no one from the public cared about how the apartment was being used.

“Who from the public stood up and said, ‘This is an issue that keeps me up at night?’ ‘This is what we need in order to move the city forward.’ No one, besides members of the city council,” Joseph said. “So, this has been an issue because they made it an issue. It’s never been an issue.

“The mayor has used this residence the same way other mayors have been using it since the 1980s. And now, all of a sudden, that’s an issue enough that the city council has to pick it up and will rip this residence away from the people of the City of New Orleans. And, like I said, no one here is proud and it’s a sad day for the City of New Orleans.”

WVUE wanted to know if members of the public had voiced concerns about how the apartment was being used. Earlier this year, the council voted 4-2 to bar Cantrell from using the apartment. However, Cantrell vetoed that measure. On Aug. 24, the council voted 5-2 to override Cantrell’s veto. Our team requested records for emails sent to city council members around the time of the vote with the keywords “Pontalba,” “Mayor” and “Cantrell.”

Records show that both on the day before and the day of the vote to override the mayor’s veto, Councilman Freddie King received several emails asking him to vote against the mayor. After the vote, one resident thanked him by email for his “integrity and accountability.” Another called the apartment a “distraction.”

King was the deciding vote in the override.

Collins says Joseph’s claims that no one cared about the use of the apartment don’t add up.

“The public clearly cares about the Pontalba, because, you know, whenever this issue comes up … everyone has an opinion about it,” Collins said. “You don’t need to be a journalist or public official to just walk down the street, and people will come up and ask you, ‘Are they going to take this apartment away from the mayor? Why is the mayor being allowed to use this apartment for her family and for personal things that have nothing to do with the city?’”

In her first news conference after the death of her husband, Mayor Cantrell claimed that someone had filed a public records request asking for the number of bereavement days she took.

On Aug. 30, Cantrell said, “When I received a public records request on yesterday asking for ‘how many days did the mayor take off,’ you know, to because of the loss of her husband? You know, like wow. You know, nothing to hide, no problem.”

Since public records requests are themselves public record, after Cantrell’s statement, WVUE asked the city for a copy of any request concerning Cantrell’s bereavement leave. The city said no such records existed. WVUE also sent an email asking the city to support Cantrell’s claim that someone filed a records request for her bereavement days. The city didn’t respond.

“We know that it’s not true because a public records request is itself a public record,” Collins said. “And so, if anybody made a public records request, there would be a record of them making that public records request. Since we can’t seem to find any public records request, it appears that she fabricated that statement. So, I don’t know why she would fabricate that statement, since it can be so easily checked, but it does appear -- based on the evidence -- that she fabricated that statement.”

WVUE sent a lengthy email to the Cantrell administration on Sept. 7, seeking clarification about the Cantrell and Joseph claims. That email asked for documentation to support Cantrell’s claim that a public records request was filed asking for her bereavement days. It also asked if the city had any documents outlining plans for dignitaries to stay at the Upper Pontalba apartment, and informed the city of emails showing members of the public had reached out to council members before the vote to put the unit back into commerce.

The email asked for a response by Monday, Sept. 11 at 2 p.m. When that deadline passed, WVUE asked again, extending the deadline to Sept. 15 at noon.

However on Fri., Sept. 22, two days after our story ran, Joseph called our newsroom to inform us that a newspaper reporter had sent him a text message asking for the number of days the mayor took off.

It is unclear why this information was not supplied in response to our initial request or why the administration did not respond to our follow-up emails.

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