Mayoral candidate LaToya Cantrell and her staff have charged more than $106,000 to their taxpayer financed credit cards since early 2013, far more than any of her six City Council colleagues.
But a review of thousands of City Council billing records by WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate shows that Cantrell and her staff in the District B council office stay within their annual budget and do not spend significantly more per year than their counterparts in the office of At-Large Councilman Jason Williams.
In fact, none of the seven council members has ever exceeded his or her office’s annual budget, which was $40,000 per office in 2013, $35,000 from 2014 to 2016 and $30,000 this year.
“The city council has the smallest budget of any branch,” Williams said in an interview with WWL-TV. “In fact, we have even returned money each year and reduced our budget.”
The amount of credit card spending varied wildly among the seven council offices. District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry spent the least, at an average of $5,709 per year. At-Large Councilwoman Stacy Head and District D’s Jared Brossett each spent less than $10,000 per year.
They rarely traveled on the city taxpayers’ dime, but Cantrell and her staff took at least 34 trips and Williams and his staff took 30, driving most of their average annual charges over $22,000 each.
WWL-TV asked for every councilmember’s credit card records last month when a criminal complaint was filed against Cantrell, who had acknowledged using personal and campaign funds to reimburse more than $8,951 since mid-2013.
Some of the reimbursements were for trips or other charges that Cantrell determined were not for city business when she qualified as a mayoral candidate in July, including a funeral in New York and charges during a campaign trip to San Francisco.
“My office and I conducted periodic reconciliations and questionable expenditures and things that could be considered personal were repaid,” she said. “I regret any errors made in the use of the card, but those were unintentional.”
Williams and Guidry also made reimbursements, either when organizations like the Greater New Orleans Foundation paid for meetings they sponsored out of town, or when the councilmembers or their staffs acknowledged errors.
City Council credit card rules forbid using the cards to purchase alcohol. Cantrell did that at least five times over the years, and Williams did so on at least one occasion, when a Hooters Restaurant in Jackson, Miss., charged him for Michelob Ultra. He said the restaurant should have put that on his private credit card and repaid it before the credit card bill arrived. He also reimbursed other charges on that trip to Jackson for a regional energy regulators’ meeting, such as in-room movies at his hotel.
Guidry said she reimbursed one charge that bothered her – a $143 coffee-maker for her council office that she decided was too expensive and later reimbursed with campaign funds.
“We had difficulty using a regular coffee pot, as some of us drink coffee and chicory and some do not,” Guidry said. “When the office pot broke, I purchased a Keurig single serve coffee maker. The cost of it bothered me as a taxpayer expense, so I reimbursed the amount.”
Williams stood by his travel expenses, saying he vowed to get out of New Orleans to recruit businesses, as he did when he went to China in 2014 and sought to bring the city investments through the U.S. EB-5 Visa program, which offers affluent foreign nationals visas to come here if they make investments that produce American jobs.
Williams said he went to China with former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who had used investments from EB-5 participants for major economic development projects.
Cantrell flew to Italy and West Africa on the city's dime. Williams also traveled often as vice president of the regional energy regulatory commission.
“As chair of the utilities committee, I am required to on a very regular basis go to Arkansas, Jackson and Austin, as vice president of the ERC,” he said.
Councilman James Gray spent an average $16,261 per year and rarely explained the business purpose of his charges on the receipts. Those included four nights of hotel room upgrades at the Venetian in Las Vegas when he and two staffers were attending an annual shopping center developers’ convention there.
Gray spokesman Maria Mercedes Tio said she didn’t know what those upgrade charges were, but noted that she and another staff member who attended the conference shared a room when they were there to save money.
Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey also traveled to Las Vegas from 2015 to 2017 for that convention. She and Head used the vast majority of their credit card charges on office supplies and snacks for the office.
Head used the credit card the least on travel. She and her staff charged a total of $408.60 on travel in more than four and a half years.