The New Orleans City Council.
The 2017 mayoral runoff has not fostered much enthusiasm among New Orleans voters, but it at least has dredged up an issue that could stir voters’ passions in the election’s aftermath: City Council members’ liberal use of taxpayer-funded credit cards.
District B Councilmember LaToya Cantrell’s profligate charges on her city-issued card have become the dominant issue since the Oct. 14 primary, which Cantrell led with 39 percent of the vote. Former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet finished 8.5 percentage points behind after beginning the race as the odds-on frontrunner.
A well-financed political action committee (PAC) calling itself NotForSaleNOLA beat up Charbonnet pretty badly in the primary, accusing her of being under the spell of unsavory patronage political power brokers. While the PAC’s broadsides failed to knock Charbonnet completely out of the running, they left her so badly wounded that the former judge’s subsequent exposure of Cantrell’s extravagant — and possibly illegal — charges on her city-issued credit card do not appear to have had much effect. Polls showed Cantrell with a double-digit lead going into the campaign’s final two weeks.
Cantrell’s explanations of her questionable charges — about $9,000 of which she reimbursed via her campaign account or personal check — have varied from murky to mind-boggling. Luckily for her, voters remain so uninspired by both candidates that most appear to have barely noticed.
Cantrell’s good fortune continued when The New Orleans Advocate published an analysis
of all seven council members’ credit card expenditures since 2013. Lo and behold, Cantrell is not the only big spender — though she clearly has flashed her card more frequently and more extravagantly than any of her colleagues. Since taking office, Cantrell and her staff (each council member gets two cards, one of which can be used by a staffer) racked up nearly $100,000 in charges. The next-highest spenders were At-Large Councilman Jason Williams and District E Councilman James Gray.
In fairness to the other councilmembers, most of them appear to have used their cards in accordance with a written City Council policy that limits all
credit card expenditures to those directly related to city business. Cantrell confesses that she sees “gray areas” in those rules, but most of her colleagues dutifully documented their expenditures in black and white.
Cantrell’s critics scoff that her “gray areas” excuse won’t hold up if state or federal prosecutors take a dim view of her spending habits. A criminal complaint is already on the desk of state Attorney General Jeff Landry, and the Legislative Auditor is examining all seven council members’ use of their cards.
The council issued a unanimous written response to the issue on Nov. 9, noting that they have not exceeded their annual budgets and assuring voters that all is on the up and up. Time will tell.
Going forward, council members would be wise to pay closer attention to what’s in their wallets — and how they use it. Better still, maybe they should forgo city credit cards and either seek reimbursement after purchasing items themselves, or let their central staff handle all city-related purchases. That, at least, would provide some consistency — and eliminate those pesky gray areas.