The six-month transition period between LaToya Cantrell's election as mayor and her May 2018 inauguration didn't begin to make sense until the City Council's credit card debacle became the subject of a state audit and at least one criminal investigation.
Now, at least, we may all get a clear picture before Inauguration Day of exactly what Cantrell and her council colleagues did — and whether any of their expenditures constituted criminal acts or merely inconsistent adherence to a policy that was not regularly enforced.
So far, two investigations are public knowledge: one by state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, who is examining all seven council members' use of taxpayer-financed city credit cards; and one by state Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has subpoenaed only Cantrell's records.
Landry's investigation comes in response to an "anonymous" criminal complaint referred to him by New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. That referral is tainted by its suspicious arrival amid a hotly contested mayoral election. That alone should cause Landry to wait for Purpera to finish his work. Such forbearance would be unusual for Landry, an ambitious politician with a long history of grabbing cheap headlines, but if the auditor makes a criminal referral of his own, the payoff (political and otherwise) would be huge. Equally important, the matter then would be free of any hint of politics. Purpera is a nonpartisan appointee, not an elected official. Moreover, a forensic report with a criminal referral effectively would do the prosecutor's investigative work for him.
In addition to Landry, a criminal referral by Purpera also could bring in the feds. Misuse of credit cards triggers federal jurisdiction on several levels. And that would really ratchet things up.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
It's entirely possible that Purpera will conclude that, as distasteful as Cantrell's (and possibly others') use of city-issued credit cards is to voters, it does not rise to a level of criminality but rather reflects the sort of official laxity to which New Orleans voters are, unfortunately, all too accustomed, and that tighter controls are warranted.
To refresh everyone's memory, Cantrell and her staff racked up more than $100,000 in credit card charges since 2013. The mayor-elect reimbursed the city nearly $9,000 for expenditures. More than $4,400 of that reimbursement came days after Cantrell qualified to run for mayor.
Other council members and their staffs spent between $24,000 and $75,000 during that same period. The vast majority of expenditures were for items that clearly qualify as office expenses — paper, printer toner and the like. At least one council member — District D Councilman Jared Brossett — meticulously turned in receipts and detailed explanations. Brossett obviously understands the council's seven-page credit card policy, which boils down to this: Use the card only for city business, not for personal items, and document all purchases.
Why Cantrell (and possi- bly others) couldn't do the same, a riddle that, for now, we must wait for Purpera to unravel.