NEW ORLEANS — The Metropolitan Crime Commission sent the New Orleans City Council a report Thursday requesting an investigation into Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s alleged use of a city-owned apartment in the French Quarter.
A city spokesman acknowledged the mayor has been living without paying rent in the apartment in the historic Upper Pontalba building on Jackson Square, but said she has every right to do so.
The MCC report includes photographs of Cantrell going in and out of the apartment over several months, as well as allegations from witnesses indicating she has been staying overnight regularly at the apartment, put up privacy screens on the balcony and has been receiving packages there.
City Council President Helena Moreno said she would need time to review the MCC’s findings and the MCC's request for an investigation. But City Councilman Eugene Green, who sits on the French Market Corp. board that manages the Upper Pontalba, said he reviewed policies and didn't see a problem.
"Councilmember Green is not aware of any regulations or procedures that may have been violated," said Green's chief of staff, Sandra Thomas.
Apartment 530B in the Upper Pontalba is owned by the city and managed by the FMC, a city-affiliated agency. It has a market rate rent of $2,991 a month, but no rent was paid on the apartment from September 1, 2021 through July 31, 2022, according to French Market Corp. records obtained by WWL-TV through a public records request.
In addition, public emails obtained by The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate show Cantrell has been using a city employee, Bryon Cornelison of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy, to act as a super to get things fixed in the apartment.
In March, she reported a leak in the bathroom and told Cornelison when workers could enter: “Tomorrow between 12:30 – 2:30 is good with me Bryon. You or security would need to be present.”
Earlier in March, she wrote: “I also need Cox to come back out. Wifi to TV not working.”
In February she asked the French Market Corp. to provide a new WiFi password and Cornelison wrote to the FMC manager: “The toilet seat is broken in the hall bathroom in the Mayor’s apt.”
In January, Cornelison wrote, “I was with the Mayor at the Apt on Saturday and she says it still does not provide her with a hot shower.”
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. 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.”
He wrote a letter to all seven council members asking them 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 staying at the apartment rent-free, but defended the practice and said it’s allowed under the city’s agreement with the French Market Corp.
“The mayor’s usage of the city owned apartment at the Pontalba is consistent with the usage of previous mayors. 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.”
The 2013 agreement Joseph mentioned is a city ordinance that merged the Upper Pontalba Building Restoration Corp. and the French Market Corp. It doesn’t say anything about the apartment, which Joseph said is proof that there are no rules governing how the unit can be used.