NEW ORLEANS — A judge has temporarily blocked Mayor LaToya Cantrell from spending any of the city’s share of a 108-year-old trust that’s worth millions of dollars and that the City Council claims was supposed to expire and turn over to the city government in 2014.
Judge Kern Reese issued a temporary restraining order Friday to stop Cantrell or any of the other beneficiaries of the 1914 Wisner Trust from spending its proceeds without court approval.
The City Council took the court action to have the trust dissolved once and for all. It was set up by landowner Edward Wisner to revert to the city after 100 years, but the trust has been extended by Wisner’s heirs and the last two New Orleans mayors, Cantrell and her predecessor Mitch Landrieu.
The trust includes large tracts of land in southeast Louisiana, including Port Fourchon, a bustling oil and gas port that brings in millions of dollars a year through leases. A settlement from the 1920s split the trust proceeds, with 40% to Wisner’s heirs, 35% to the city, 12% to Charity Hospital (now LSU Health Sciences Center), 12% to Tulane University and 1% to the Salvation Army.
If the trust dissolves, all of the land and its proceeds would go to the city and be overseen by the City Council through the normal budget process.
But by keeping the trust in place, mayors of New Orleans were able to dole out the city’s share through grants, however they wanted. The City Council estimates that the city lost out on $21 million between 2015 and 2019 by failing to dissolve the trust.
An advisory board used to meet in public hearings to consider applications from nonprofits seeking Wisner grants from the mayor. That panel would recommend grant recipients, who were required to file reports detailing how they spent the grant money. But in 2020, Cantrell joined with the Wisner heirs – mostly attorneys now – to change the public trust into a private entity, and all public hearings and public reporting on spending stopped.
The City Council argues that move was illegal and is asking Reese to issue an injunction at a hearing set for Wednesday, Sept. 28.
The mayor’s office has not responded to multiple requests for comment over the last two days.