NEW ORLEANS -- More questions emerged Friday about whether mayoral candidate LaToya Cantrell ran afoul of city policies or state ethics laws when she used her credit card for almost $9,000 in purchases that she or her campaign later reimbursed.
New Orleans city government and related agencies were plagued by exorbitant credit card charges during former Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration, leading current Mayor Mitch Landrieu to establish strict limits on credit card usage by city employees in 2010.
“I didn't see the need to have all those credit cards running all over the place and we've been very circumspect about when and how and having measures in place to make sure all of those expenditures were for public matters,” Landireu said. “That's what my team has done. I would expect, truly, that the City Council and all of the boards and commissions to look at the process we put in place and follow it to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”
The City Council policy is far looser than Landrieu’s, but it does have some specific prohibitions.
“Cardholders MAY NOT … use the procurement card for personal or unauthorized purposes ... (or) use the procurement card to purchase alcoholic beverages,” the policy states.
A review of hundreds of pages of Cantrell’s credit card statements and invoices showed she did use her card to purchase alcohol on at least five occasions since 2014. Each time she reimbursed the city about two months later.
She also reimbursed the city for lodging or travel upgrades, such as $318 for three nights of upgrades at the Limelight Lodge in Aspen, Colo., where she was attending a policy summit at the Aspen Institute in August 2013.
However, it took Cantrell almost five years, until she entered the mayoral race in July 2017, to pay back those charges.
Cantrell’s former chief of staff, Marilyn Wood, said that trip to Aspen, along with subsequent ones for a national leadership fellowship Cantrell received in 2014, constituted legitimate city business.
Former State Ethics Board Attorney Gray Sexton says the Ethics Board can fine public officials if they are found using public funds to benefit themselves or their campaigns. But he says the Ethics Board considers official’s explanations on a case-by-case basis.
The board could decline to pursue civil penalties if a public official says the credit card was used in error and the charges were reimbursed. But the longer it takes for the official to reimburse, the more likely the Ethics Board will find a violation, he said.
Sexton also said state theft and malfeasance laws could apply, but only if prosecutors find an intent to disguise or shield the spending from the public.
Wood, who handled the credit card billing for Cantrell when she worked in her office, told us there was never any intent to hide charges and they were always reported to the City Council Fiscal Office.
But she acknowledged that some receipts were missing or not itemized, and there were some “gray areas” where Cantrell was not sure if an expense was legitimate city business.
She said that confusion and uncertainty is why $4,433.22 in prior charges, including some that were more than five years old, were reimbursed in a lump sum on July 17, just as Cantrell was entering the mayor’s race.
“There were occasional errors and mistakes made,” Wood said. “Nobody is arguing this whole process has been perfect. But we were responsible for $140,000 (in budgeted office expenses) over four years. Did we try to fix it when it didn’t work? Yes. Did she mean to do it like that? No.”
As an example of a “gray area,” Wood said Cantrell took four months to reimburse $76.25 from an event at the Beau Rivage Casino because she wasn’t sure if it was city or campaign business.
“Beau Rivage was a campaign expense, but she went to talk to people in Biloxi about a smoke-free ordinance, so she didn’t know if that was city business or not. Our smoke-free ordinance was long over by then,” Wood said. “So she asked for guidance from council research and didn’t get that guidance, so she decided to pay it back anyway.”
In addition to the $8,951.69 in charges that Cantrell reimbursed, she charged more than $42,000 without declaring a city business purpose and did not reimburse. Declaring a clear business purpose is not required by the City Council credit card policy, but it is required in guidance from the state Legislative Auditor’s Office.
Among those charges were 29 trips around the U.S. and one to Milan, Italy. Wood said the Italy trip was for an international resiliency conference that other members of New Orleans city government attended and incidental charges during the trip were legitimate city expenses.
Wood said Cantrell’s airfare was paid by the Rockefeller Foundation, but credit card receipts show Cantrell used city funds to pay Delta $193 for two fees for excess baggage.
Cantrell charged taxpayers for six separate trips to New York City during the five years, but when she declared her candidacy for mayor, she decided to reimburse more than $1,000 for all of the expenses from one of those trips, from April 2016.
In an interview with Gambit on Thursday, Cantrell said that particular trip was to attend the funeral of an “archbishop who was very influential in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina,” before she was elected to the Council. Asked by Gambit for the name of the late minister, Cantrell said she could only recall his first name was Paul.
Wood said Cantrell wasn’t sure if attending that funeral was a personal expense or part of her role as an ambassador for the city, but decided to reimburse “out of an abundance of caution.”
Cantrell’s campaign promised an explanation of the city business conducted on all 30 trips WWL-TV identified, but had not produced it by Friday evening.
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