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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Editorial: Mayor's race a mud pit

Posted By on Thu, Nov 2, 2017 at 10:02 AM

click to enlarge Mayoral candidates Desiree Charbonnet (left) and LaToya Cantrell at a debate at Xavier University Oct. 30. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Mayoral candidates Desiree Charbonnet (left) and LaToya Cantrell at a debate at Xavier University Oct. 30.

This editorial has been updated.

The final weeks of the 2017 mayoral election appear to be less a race to the finish line than a long, uncontrolled slide into a mud pit. LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet are exchanging accusations of poor money management and even poorer judgment. While neither set of accusations proves criminality — though both have alleged as much — the volleys raise legitimate concerns about both candidates’ character.

News stories about Cantrell’s freewheeling use of a City Council credit card have dragged on for more than a week as new questions kept cropping up. The District B councilmember reimbursed the city for thousands of dollars in charges — some in the form of a personal check, some from her campaign account. The problem here isn’t just potential illegality, but the wide latitude accorded council members via a $30,000-a-year expense account for constituent services. Mayoral and departmental employees at City Hall have very specific, written policies for the expensing of meals and travel. Council members and their employees likewise must abide by a written set of rules, although Cantrell says many of her credit card expenses fall into “gray areas.” Cantrell insists that her lump repayment of more than $4,400 in credit card charges right after she qualified for mayor demonstrates her scrupulousness, but it could just as easily be seen as the move of someone who knew this would become a campaign issue.

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, an avid Charbonnet supporter, received “anonymous” criminal complaints against both candidates. The DA rightly handed the entire matter over to state Attorney General Jeff Landry, but that raises issues of its own. Landry, a Republican whose designs on the governor’s office are thinly disguised, likely would welcome the chance to investigate a Democratic mayor of the state’s largest city. If Landry truly wants to be impartial — and see justice done — he should pursue this one with federal investigators. And he should defer to the feds at every turn.

Meanwhile, multiple local news agencies have filed public records requests to track the credit card spending of all city councilmembers. This will go a long way toward telling us whether Cantrell’s highly questionable charges and reimbursements are a singular problem or a systemic one. Regardless, it’s clear the council needs to enforce its written policy for credit card use.

The Cantrell camp has fired back at Charbonnet by detailing office furnishings the former Municipal Court judge bought via her judicial expense account. None of those expenses violate the law, however. The third-party political action committee Not For Sale NOLA alleged that Charbonnet wrongly claimed a homestead exemption for years at a house where she was not domiciled — but a “verify” report by WWL-TV’s David Hammer found that claim to be “false” because Charbonnet’s ex-husband lives at that house and legally can claim the exemption.

Through all the mud, one thing is clear: Neither candidate inspires confidence in her ability to manage City Hall or its annual budget of more than $600 million. We hope they’ll both do better in the final weeks of the campaign.

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