NEW ORLEANS – A review of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's city credit card bills and receipts by WWL-TV found that he spends between $3,400 and $4,300 a year on travel and lodging and charges almost nothing else to taxpayers, a far cry from the spending habits of his predecessor.
Former Mayor Ray Nagin was convicted on 20 federal corruption counts in February, including tax evasion for failing to declare thousands in freebies he enjoyed as mayor. At Nagin's trial, an IRS agent's testimony detailed what many had known for years -- that Nagin used his city credit card liberally for meals at swanky restaurants and other living expenses.
But seeing the charges in their totality was still astonishing.
In 2006 alone, Nagin spent $73,000 on the card -- about $1,500 a week. The card charges included $500 in Cancun, clothes shopping in Dallas, the Ritz for the family vacation in Atlanta and $6,200 on 15 trips for Nagin's family members, including for his mother-in-law and pre-teen daughter.
Nagin said that if people came up to him when he was having a private dinner, he felt justified charging it to the city taxpayers. He contended that he needed to take his family on trips as part of his duties as the mayor, especially after Hurricane Katrina and levee failures devastated the city.
“Well, it's nonsense of course, and it's self-serving and it's designed to cover his exploitation of the people of New Orleans,” said Ed Quatrevaux, New Orleans' inspector general.
WWL used the state public records law to request all of Landrieu's credit card records since he took over from Nagin in May 2010. The change has been significant.
“We eliminated credit card usage by almost everybody and what was charged to credit cards was for city business as opposed to personal business,” said Andy Kopplin, chief administrative officer for the Landrieu administration.
While Nagin used his city card 354 times in the year 2006, including on vacations and at local restaurants several nights per week, Landrieu used his just 31 times in four years --all for either hotels or transportation while traveling on city business.
“When the mayor took office,” Kopplin said, “he asked me to meet with the inspector general and he asked the CFO Mr. (Norman) Foster and I to work and develop a new policy in regards to credit cards to limit the excessive use that the inspector general and news media… had documented.”
Landrieu doesn't exactly scrimp on hotel accommodations. He usually pays upwards of $300 a night to stay at places like the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C., or the Intercontinental Barclay in New York. He once paid $515 dollars for one night at The Jefferson in Washington, but Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble said it was near his meetings and was actually cheaper than other options.
He also paid $1,500 to rent an SUV in Los Angeles for the day, riding to several meetings around the area, including one at Sony Pictures Studio in Culver City. The receipt from the limousine company is marked "VIP! VIP! VIP! NO MISTAKES WITH THIS PASSENGER!"
But other times Landrieu has just taken a cab. And as for meals, he's only charged for one hotel breakfast in four years. Kopplin said Landrieu even declines to take the per diem of about $60 that city employees can use for incidentals, deciding instead to pay for his own meals while traveling.
Quatrevaux was impressed with the progress.
“It's the people's money and I think this administration has demonstrated, has lived up to its promises," he said. "I haven't audited it, but based on the numbers you've gone over, it seems like they're hardly spending anything on the credit cards and that's the first step.”
There are now only eight city officials with credit cards, down from the dozens in the Nagin administration. While Nagin's appointees charges taxpayers $300 for wine, $10,000 for a first-class trip to Dubai and for donations to Jefferson Parish charities, Landrieu's team only shows charges for equipment, software and other work items. The one strange charge WWL found during its investigation was on Library Deputy Director Chuck McMorran card, more than $250 last year at Bed Bath and Beyond. The city said it was a fraudulent charge, it was refunded, and McMorran was issued a new card.