The runoff for mayor of New Orleans has quickly devolved into a finger-pointing contest over who misspent the most public money the most egregiously. Spending taxpayer dollars prudently (and legally) is always a relevant issue, particularly now that finances are one of the few things not broken at City Hall. It would be nice if the next mayor kept it that way. Based on what we've seen in the runoff, there's little cause for optimism.
Desiree Charbonnet, the early frontrunner who finished 8.5 percentage points behind LaToya Cantrell in the Oct. 14 primary, fired the first shot in the runoff, to no one's surprise. Her team accuses Cantrell of charging thousands of dollars of personal expenses to a city-issued credit card while on the City Council.
The alleged improper charges range from more than 100 Thanksgiving turkeys given to poor and elderly constituents and more than two dozen out-of-town trips (including one to Milan, Italy) to scores of meals.
Packets containing allegations of Cantrell misappropriating public dollars were delivered to several local newsrooms beginning Oct. 25. The story grew legs when District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, a big-time Charbonnet supporter, announced his office had received an "anonymous" criminal complaint. The DA forwarded the matter to state Attorney General Jeff Landry after Cannizzaro recused himself because of his close ties to Charbonnet. Interestingly, the DA's letter to Landry was dated Oct. 24 — a day before the media got the "anonymous" packets of allegations against Cantrell.
Team Cantrell claims the whole thing is "a desperate ploy" orchestrated by Team Charbonnet, including Cannizzaro. "This is emblematic of a campaign that ... is using the district attorney's office for their own political advantage," the Cantrell campaign stated.
Regardless of whether the Charbonnet camp contrived to plant the credit card story, Cantrell has some explaining to do. After two days of media inquiries, she had yet to offer taxpayers more than vague assurances that all was on the up and up.
Meanwhile, Charbonnet will have to answer for her own lavish spending. According to the Cantrell campaign, Charbonnet spent nearly $19,000 on new furnishings for her former Municipal Court office, including $2,200 on a "loveseat with tufting and brass nail trim," nearly $950 on an "executive chair with tufting" and more than $350 on a 22-inch Samsung HDTV for her chambers. Cantrell's camp also claims Charbonnet spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on two trips to Hawaii, at least one jaunt to a Florida "golf and beach resort" and another to Las Vegas.
Charbonnet spokesman Kevin Stuart dismissed Cantrell's claims as "a cynical ploy," adding that Cantrell "broke the law by using a city credit card for personal and campaign expenses. Not even she accuses Desiree Charbonnet of doing that. Everything Desiree did was through normal channels of the law."
So here we are, with only three weeks left in the campaign, having to choose between "tuft love" and "the card shark." At this rate, the runoff could prove to be a bigger turnoff than the primary, which saw a dismal 32 percent turnout.