Cantrell seeks ethics probe of DA over credit card controversy, Cannizzaro fires back

Cantrell seeks ethics probe of DA over credit card controversy, Cannizzaro fires back

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Mayoral candidate Latoya Cantrell continues to be dogged by revelations of how she used her city-issued credit card.

But Friday she pushed back by calling for the Louisiana Ethics Board to investigate Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro who is publicly supporting her opponent, Desiree Charbonnet.

City Hall records handed over to news media outlets by Charbonnet's camp and authenticated by FOX 8 News show that mere days after Cantrell qualified for the mayor's race, she reimbursed city government for personal purchases of over $4,400. Some of the purchases include charges that date back to 2013, including a $318 payment at the Limelight Lodge in Aspen, Colorado.

The records show that last year, Cantrell wrote a $450 check for eight meals at New Orleans-area restaurants. Some of the meals were in 2014 and 2015, yet the reimbursement came years later.

FOX 8 News wanted to know how previous City Council members felt about city credits cards.

"I used city money at different times. I remember I went on a couple of trips, one to Austria and another to Australia, but I used my own credit card and charged, but then when I came back I kind of made out a bill to the city," said former long-time Councilman Jim Singleton, who spent 25 years on the City Council.

He is precluded from endorsing anyone in the mayor's race because he serves on the State Gaming Commission and is not actively involved in the BOLD political organization with which he has been aligned for decades.

"I just didn't ever want to use other than a gas card. I had a gas card in the truck that I used. Other than that, I just didn't use city cards," Singleton said.

FOX 8 found that three days before Thanksgiving last year, Cantrell charged taxpayers $1,600 for 71 turkeys, and 77 hens. And receipts from City Hall show she had dozens of charges at a grocery store for candy and drinks.

Charbonnet's camp said that Cantrell has $21,000 incharges with no explanation. FOX 8 found dozens of credit card receipts that do not detail why the purchases were made.

"Assuming the candidate is also a public servant, then again I would think that the longer the public servant waits to reimburse the agency, the more suspect it might appear to be to the Ethics Board. But again, these are fact-specific situations. It may be that the employee had forgotten about the purchase of a meal or some other item had been made until it had drawn this attention by some auditor or someone else," said Grey Sexton, who was attorney for the Louisiana Ethics Board for more than 40 years.

FOX 8 secured a copy of the City Council's credit card policy manual. In section VIII under prohibited uses it says cardholders may not:

1. Use the procurement card for personal or unauthorized purposes.

2. Use the Procurement Card to purchase alcoholic beverages or any substance, material, or service, which violates the City's Purchasing and contracting Policies & Procedures, ordinances or regulations pertaining to the City of New Orleans.

3. Use the procurement card to obtain cash, gift cards or certificates in lieu of credit.

4. Allow the card to be used by another individual.

5. Split a purchase to circumvent the card limits.

6. Use another Cardholder's card.

7. Refuse and/or fails to provide Department Liaison with required receipts.

8. Refuse and/or fails to provide information about any specific purchase.

On Thursday, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's staff sent an anonymous criminal complaint the office received over Cantrell's use of the city credit card to Attorney General Jeff Landry.

On Friday, Cantrell called for an investigation by the state Ethics Board into what she called, "unprecedented actions regarding the New Orleans mayoral election." A press release said the Cantrell campaign will also file a public records request for any and all communication between Cannizzaro's office and Charbonnet's campaign.

Charbonnet's camp said in response:

"It's a cynical attempt to distract from her mounting legal problems because she put personal and campaign expenses on a city credit card.  It's perhaps no surprise that she thought of the ethics board because Cantrell has a long history of ethics violations and fines that even resulted in an Attorney General's order to garnish her wages.  The voters will see all this for what is, we are confident."

FOX 8 questioned Landry about his office being asked by Cannizzaro to handle the investigation into the criminal complaint.

"We have a policy in the office where we don't comment about matters that are under investigation, but routinely district attorneys very routinely send cases to our office under a recusal request, saying, 'Look, under this condition I shouldn't be handling this matter, therefore we recuse this case to you.'"

Landry said his office follows the law.

"We take that information and we look at the evidence, we do our own investigation and then we make a determination as to whether or not we charge a person or not," Landry said.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the legislative branch of city government is a co-equal part of city government. Still, the executive branch has only three credit cards and has made major reforms to procedures regarding such cards. He said if the City Council's credit card controls are inadequate, the council should address that.
Traditionally in politics, things get feistier between campaigns the closer it gets to election day. Early voting for the mayor's race begins Nov. 3.

Singleton, who was a stickler for financial detail on the council had, this advice for current public officials in terms of credit card usage: "I would say don't use the card, use your own card and then have a record that whatever expenses you have for the city, then you can make out an affidavit to get your money back from the city, or I got the money in advance for things I wanted to do with money."

And the former councilman is not surprised at the tone of the campaign in the home stretch.

"Right now you're in the middle of a political race. Hey, it goes with the territory I guess to a certain extent, obviously the people are looking for something. She's out in front, she's in the lead in this election and there's some people looking for some way to tear her down and that's all part of the game and if you're going to play the game you need to understand that," he said.

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