NEW ORLEANS — At least two New Orleans-area stores have received subpoenas from a federal grand jury and been questioned by FBI agents about purchases made by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s image consultant, according to representatives of the businesses.
Laura Rodrigue, a lawyer representing Ballin’s boutique – where the consultant, Tanya Haynes, often shopped for outfits for the mayor – said the owners are cooperating with the federal investigation.
A sales manager at BC Kitchen and Bath in Metairie said Thursday that a grand jury subpoena was served Sept. 13 at her store, for a $17,000 kitchen remodel at Haynes’ home. While the Ballin’s subpoena appears to relate to Haynes’ work for Cantrell, there is no obvious link between the BC Kitchen and Bath subpoena and the mayor.
The subpoena for BC Kitchen & Bath, requested by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordan Ginsberg, asked the company to send the records to FBI Special Agent Todd Goodson by Sept. 30. The feds sought “any accounts associated with” Haynes or her husband, Vernon Haynes and specified records of a $2,000 purchase on Nov. 7, 2020.
Acting U.S. Attorney Duane Evans declined to comment. A spokesperson for the New Orleans office of the FBI also declined to comment.
Cantrell’s communications director, Gregory Joseph, replied to questions about the probe in a brief statement. “Our office has not received nor has any knowledge of a federal investigation into Mayor Cantrell,” it read. “However, in the event that this changes, our office will, as always, fully cooperate with any and all agency inquiries."
Image consultant's business paid handsomely by Cantrell campaign
Since late 2017, Cantrell’s campaign has paid Tanya Haynes and her business, Jolie Image Consulting, $234,339, records show.
The payments to Haynes have generally increased over time, reaching $6,000 per month in 2021, the records show. Cantrell has not had to file a campaign finance report yet in 2022.
A source familiar with the inquiry said subpoenas were issued to Ballin’s in August that specify purchase dates for which investigators are seeking records.
Gray Sexton, the longtime former lawyer for the state Ethics Board, told The Advocate in 2019 that he saw no inherent problem in Cantrell’s heavy spending on an image consultant.
But in an interview Thursday, he said such expenditures are proper under state law only if they’re truly spent on consulting – not clothing. He noted a few limited exceptions to that rule: for instance, people who hold elected positions that might require them to wear a uniform, such as an elected police chief, might be able to tap their campaign funds.
Sexton now represents NoLaToya, the campaign effort to recall Cantrell from office.
Campaign funds at issue
Kathleen Allen, the board’s administrator, provided several written opinions issued by the board on the same question over the years. In one 1992 opinion, the board’s then-lawyer wrote that “ordinary clothing expenses may not appropriately be paid using campaign funds.”
In 2000, however, the board told Joe “Coach” Thomas, then newly elected to the St. Tammany Parish Council, that it was permissible for him to use $150 in campaign money to purchase a tuxedo to wear to his inauguration and other events.
In 2002, Judge Janice Clark of Baton Rouge was fined $5,000 by the Ethics Board after she acknowledged using a $32,000 loan from her campaign account – which she paid back – to “enhance her personal appearance and wardrobe.”
“Certainly, the ethics board has the power and authority to question whether certain expenditures are related to the holding of office,” Sexton said.
A more complicated question is when questionable campaign expenses rise to the level of a federal crime.
Campaign expense prosecutions are rare
It’s rare, but there have been at least two prosecutions in the last decade in New Orleans’ federal courthouse of prominent elected officials over campaign spending.
One case targeted Walter Reed, the former district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington parishes, and the other targeted Karen Carter Peterson, the former state senator for a swath of New Orleans.
Peterson, who is due to be sentenced Dec. 7, confessed to taking roughly $100,000 from her campaign and another $50,000 from the state Democratic Party - which she headed - and spending it to gamble. Peterson has described herself as a gambling addict. She has paid back the money she took.
Reed was accused of a range of misdeeds related to his campaign fund. Among other things, he was accused of overpaying his son, Steven, for a campaign event the son helped stage. The money was used to pay down a loan on a bar Steven Reed bought, a loan his father co-signed.
Both Reed and Peterson were prosecuted under the federal wire fraud statute, by a team that included Ginsberg, who is handling the Cantrell probe as well.
“If a politician is using campaign funds of a sufficient amount that it meaningfully enriches themselves or their families, and the expenses have nothing to do with the holding of office – that’s the sort of thing that would attract the attention of federal law enforcement,” said Matt Chester, a defense lawyer who was on the team that prosecuted former Mayor Ray Nagin.
A former Orleans Parish prosecutor, Rodrigue helped launch Bayou Mama Bears, a political organization that has been vocal in criticizing Cantrell over crime and masking. Her representation of the boutique, however, dates back to at least 2018, she said.
“The subpoenas were issued prior to any announcement of a recall effort,” Rodrigue said.
Haynes, who was treating a client in her Gentilly salon Thursday morning, declined to comment when approached by a reporter.
Her husband, Vernon Haynes, a former New Orleans police detective, said he and his wife learned about the subpoenas on the news late Thursday.
“I don’t even know how many subpoenas are out there,” he said. “We were as shocked as anybody.”
Vernon Haynes said he didn’t know what the federal interest in the matter might be.
“My wife has been a beautician for 30 years,” he said. “She just does LaToya’s hair, buys clothes for her, styles her. I don’t know the issue with it.”