NEW ORLEANS — In the wake of revelations that Mayor LaToya Cantrell has made regular use of an apartment in the historic Pontalba building, the city’s Office of Inspector General has opened an investigation into the city-controlled apartment.
The IG’s inquiry dates back to October and was noted in the office’s monthly report that month as an “administrative investigation” in which documents were requested from CAO Gilbert Montano.
Inspector General Ed Michel declined to comment on the IG’s probe, saying his office does not comment on open investigations.
The historic apartments on Jackson Square known as the “Upper Pontalba” are owned by the city and operated by the French Market Corporation, which rents all but one apartment to private citizens and corporations. That city-controlled apartment, 530B, has been considered a hospitality suite or place to entertain visiting VIPs. The downriver side of Jackson Square features an almost identical set of apartments known as the “Lower Pontalba,” which are rented by the state.
According to records obtained by WWL-TV through a public records request, the FMC, has set a market rate rent of $2,991 a month, but no rent was paid on the city apartment from September 1, 2021 through July 31, 2022.
While there does not appear to be any written city policy regarding the use of the apartment, the Louisiana Constitution and state ethics rules prohibit public servants from receiving anything of value other than specified compensation and benefits. The statutes also prohibit officials from using public assets for private gain.
Questions about Cantrell’s use of the Pontalba apartment were first raised publicly by the non-profit Metropolitan Crime Commission, which released photographs of the mayor coming and going from the apartment on multiple different days.
MCC president Rafael Goyeneche said living rent-free in a city property is an improper benefit.
“That's an additional benefit tax-free that she's been receiving,” he said. “She doesn't need to be residing there or using that. And I think that it's a misuse and abuse of her authority. But I'm waiting to see what the city council's position is.”
Goyeneche wrote a letter to the City Council asking the body to investigate.
“If your investigation confirms her personal use of this unit, we request the City Council ascertain whether Mayor Cantrell is complying with city policy and/or state law by inhabiting this city-owned apartment without paying rent or being taxed for the fair market value use of this unit," he wrote.
Cantrell’s communications director, Gregory Joseph, acknowledged the mayor has been using the apartment, but defended the practice and said it’s allowed under the city’s agreement with the French Market Corporation.
“The mayor’s usage of the city owned apartment at the Pontalba is consistent with the usage of previous mayors,” Joseph wrote in a statement. “In the 2013 franchise agreement there are no rules governing how that unit should be used and the FMC believes the mayor has no obligation to pay rent on that apartment because she’s using it in the same manner that previous mayors have enjoyed.”
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