A political hot potato appears to be headed toward District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who for the second time in as many weeks, has been asked to investigate criminal allegations against a candidate for New Orleans mayor.
This time the anonymous complaint takes aim at mayoral candidate Desiree Charbonnet, a former municipal court judge and recorder of mortgages, accusing her of improperly claiming a homestead exemption for the residence she once lived in with her ex-husband.
The complaint, which was distributed to the local news media, comes amid fresh attacks by the political action committee Not For Sale NOLA, which this week accused Charbonnet of "cheating New Orleans out of vital tax dollars" by holding an "unjustified homestead tax exemption on a property which has not been her home for at least three years."
Erroll Williams, the Orleans Parish assessor, said in an interview Wednesday that Charbonnet no longer receives the exemption, even though her name remains listed on the property information on the assessor's website. "She doesn't receive one," he said. "Her ex-husband lives there and receives the full benefit of the exemption."
Kevin Stuart, a spokesman for the Charbonnet campaign, dismissed the allegations as "totally bogus." He called the complaint a "desperate attempt to change the subject away" from the complaint Cannizzaro received last week regarding Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell's alleged misuse of a city credit card.
WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate reported last week that Cantrell used her city credit card to pay for at least $8,950 in personal or political expenses since she took office in late 2012, later reimbursing the city in several payments, sometimes years later.
Cannizzaro, who endorsed Charbonnet, referred the complaint against Cantrell to the state Attorney General's Office but was accused of unethical behavior by Cantrell’s campaign for publicly confirming the move. Cantrell described the DA’s public comments as "an extraordinary effort to tilt the New Orleans mayoral race" in Charbonnet's favor.
Even though the homestead exemption claims appear to have no merit, Cannizzaro has an ethical duty to refer the allegations to the state Attorney General's Office, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
"Because he has picked a side in this race, he pretty much is forced to recuse himself," Goyeneche said. "He's not going to be able to investigate it."
A Cannizzaro spokesman, Chris Bowman, declined to comment on the anonymous complaint, saying the office was closed Tuesday for All Saints' Day.
"The District Attorney's Office is not going to comment on something it hasn't seen," Bowman said.
Not For Sale NOLA denied making the criminal complaint.
There is a homestead exemption on the house Charbonnet still officially owns with her ex-husband, attorney Bryan K. Jefferson, in the Lake Terrace subdivision near the University of New Orleans. Meanwhile, Charbonnet is registered to vote and living in an apartment on Magazine Street.
The state requires taxpayers to live in and register to vote at the property where they claim a homestead exemption.
It’s true that Charbonnet does not live at the house in Lake Terrace anymore. It’s also true that her name is still on the house’s ownership records with that of Jefferson.
Orleans Parish civil court and land records show Charbonnet and Jefferson divorced in 2011, but never split their community property.
Jefferson provided WWL-TV with a sworn affidavit Tuesday, saying he lives in the house on Caldwell Drive in Lake Terrace and he pays the mortgage and taxes. He says he gets the benefit of the $7,500 homestead exemption and Charbonnet doesn’t.
Not For Sale NOLA says if that’s true, Jefferson should only get half the exemption. But WWL-TV consulted with Jefferson Parish Assessor Tom Capella without telling him whose property was at issue, and he said a person who gets divorced and maintains primary residence in the home can continue to claim the homestead exemption on community property that has not been divided.
Capella said it is odd for community property from a divorce finalized more than six years ago not to have been divided or settled yet. But he said that as long as the ex-spouse who no longer lives there doesn’t try to claim another homestead exemption on other property, it is OK.
There’s no evidence in property records that Charbonnet claims any homestead exemption elsewhere. Therefore, WWL-TV deems Not For Sale NOLA’s claim that Charbonnet “ducks property taxes” on the Caldwell Drive property false.