NEW ORLEANS -- New details emerged Friday about a $600 dinner mayoral candidate LaToya Cantrell charged to a taxpayer-financed credit card when she was in San Francisco for a campaign fundraiser in June.
Cantrell has reimbursed the city for more than $8,950 in charges since 2013, contending that they were mostly “gray areas” where she wasn’t sure if it was a personal or campaign expense or a legitimate city expense.
On Aug. 31, she paid back more than $745 to cover the $600 dinner at San Francisco’s Hayes Street Grill, as well as Uber and taxi rides during the trip. A money order covered the dinner and a personal check covered the ground transportation charges.
When WWL-TV first asked about the charges, Cantrell campaign spokesman David Winkler-Schmit said the dinner was for Cantrell’s family members who had joined her for a fundraiser hosted by the current mayor of San Francisco and two former mayors.
But when moderator Dennis Woltering asked Cantrell about the dinner at the WWL-TV/AARP debate, the city councilwoman denied she had used the card for a “$600 dinner for my family.” She also said someone else had reimbursed the city for that expense.
The next day, Winkler-Schmit said he had made an error and the dinner was actually a meeting about serving at-risk youth with youth services professionals who operate youth centers in the Bay Area.
Winkler-Schmit said Kenny Porter, who runs a youth home called Greater New Beginnings in Oakland, was the one who sent the money order to reimburse Cantrell for the dinner. But when WWL-TV spoke with Porter on the phone, he denied sending the money order and said he and the other professionals had pooled their money and paid back Cantrell that night, in cash.
Asked about that discrepancy, Winkler-Schmit directed WWL-TV to Karen Nathaniel. On Friday, Nathaniel told WWL-TV that she is Cantrell’s cousin and joined other Cantrell family members on the trip to California.
Nathaniel said she, Cantrell’s mother and Cantrell’s brother joined Porter and the other youth services professionals at the dinner at Hayes Street Grill.
“After the dinner, Mr. Porter approached me and found out (Cantrell) paid for the dinner,” Nathaniel said. “He did not want her to pay for the dinner. In fact, he was upset she paid for the dinner because she was not supposed to. He wanted to hand her payment for the dinner, but she refused to take it. So, I took the cash. He went to go hand it to her, and I took it and I went to try to pay the bill. That’s when I found out the bill was already paid, so I told Mr. Porter that she would be reimbursed for the dinner.”
Nathaniel, who lives in Austin, Texas, said she didn’t see Cantrell again until an August trip to New Orleans and that’s when she got the money order and gave it to Cantrell to reimburse the city. Cantrell then turned it in to be filed with the City Council administrator, according to Bryon Cornelson, Cantrell’s constituent services director.
“Throughout my five years serving with the New Orleans City Council, I have used a city credit card when conducting City business, which includes furthering the interests of New Orleans and our residents,” Cantrell said in a statement to WWL-TV. “During that time, I have had to make hundreds, if not thousands, of charges on the card. While I always tried to ensure good record keeping, I must admit I am not perfect.
“My office and I conducted periodic reconciliations and questionable expenditures and things that could be considered personal were repaid,” Cantrell added. “I regret any errors made in the use of the card, but those were unintentional.”
Cantrell has taken more than 30 trips using the city credit card and detailed most of those expenses at WWL-TV’s request. On Friday, Cantrell’s campaign addressed questions about additional trips the station had not asked about the first time, including a $2,272.50 charge for a June 2013 trip to Accra, Ghana, in West Africa.
“She provided proclamations from the City Council to village chiefs and a school,” Winkler-Schmit wrote in an email. “She delivered a gift of computers to a school. She studied the Ghanaian education system, and education and immigration policy. In addition, LaToya met with African women leaders, both adults and girls, and shared experiences. Finally, she sought support for a National Slave Ship Museum concept. The city didn’t pay for anything but the flight.”
Winkler-Schmit said Cantrell’s trips all dovetail with her work in disaster recovery or her legislative agenda, including “Welcoming Cities” work on immigration policy, the smoke-free ordinance she championed, affordable housing, blight reduction and drainage issues.
“My campaign has addressed numerous media inquiries regarding expenditures and I feel it is time to move on and focus on the critical issues that our city faces,” Cantrell said in her statement. “I will continue to show voters my experience and my ability to deliver results that will make New Orleans a better and safer city for all.”