NO.fortifiedprogram.060124

Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks about the fortified roof program Friday, May 31, 2024, at a home getting a new fortified roof on St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans, La.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s travel has cost New Orleans taxpayers more than $250,000 since the start of 2023, a stretch of time in which the mayor has spent more than one in five days outside of the city, according to expense records and official schedules.

The expenses for more than 20 trips in the U.S. and overseas include hotel rooms, flights, car services, food and drink and other incidentals for Cantrell and the staffers that accompany her, including New Orleans police officers who serve as the mayor’s bodyguards.

Outside groups sponsoring Cantrell's attendance at conferences have pitched in another $100,000 for expenses. The mayor’s travel costs are often partially or completely covered by sponsors, but those of her entourage generally aren’t.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Mayor Valérie Plante of Montreal

Mayor LaToya Cantrell meets with Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante during a trip in May. (Photo credit: City of New Orleans)

The $250,000 in expenses billed to city taxpayers were tallied by The Times-Picayune using documents obtained through public records requests. They were paid out of the city’s general fund. The cost of her trips, which have drawn scrutiny for their frequency, hasn’t before been made public.

Cantrell’s destinations over the last 18 months have included climate conferences in Nairobi, Dubai and other far-flung cities, a celebration of New Orleans culture in Los Angeles and five meetings of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. She has traveled to the same number of foreign countries as she has U.S. states — six each — and has made five trips to Washington, D.C.

The tally of travel spending over the last 18 months does not include the cost of Cantrell’s recent six-day trip to Qatar. A request for those records is pending.

Most big-city mayors take taxpayer-funded trips for official business, and New Orleans’ other recent mayors have also hit the road for various events. Cantrell’s travel began to attract greater notice in 2022, shortly after her reelection, when she took two trips to Europe in less than a month, the first to sign a “sister city” pact in France and the second to attend a jazz festival in Switzerland. Cantrell charged room and flight upgrades to taxpayers, violating city policy, and she was eventually forced to reimburse nearly $30,000.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell in Doha, Qatar

Mayor LaToya Cantrell during a meeting in Doha, Qatar in May, 2024. (Photo Credit: City of New Orleans)

Since then, Cantrell has on several occasions taken back-to-back-to-back trips that have kept her away for the better part of a month.

The regularity of Cantrell’s travel, as well as the sustained outcry over it, lacks easy historical comparisons, said Silas Lee, a veteran pollster and political consultant who worked for Cantrell during her first mayoral run.

Because of that, Lee said, residents don’t have an easy way to judge the appropriateness of the frequency, cost and purpose of her trips.

“The first thing people do is think about how this relates to their personal life experiences,” Lee said. “Quite often they will put it in the context of their income or the value of their house.”

Cantrell's spokesperson, Leatrice Dupre, said Cantrell's travel is a vital part of the mayor's job.?

"As the lead ambassador for our city, the Mayor's travel is strategic to accomplish political and business goals, as well as to satisfy cultural objectives," Dupre said in a written statement. "The Mayor is well recognized as an experienced leader for storm management and recovery and is a leading voice when it comes to climate change solutions."

Dupre said Cantrell's travel expenses for the year 2023 are $38,000. That appears to be a roughly accurate accounting of what the city paid for the mayor individually during that time period. Cantrell was away from New Orleans for 70 days in 2023, and her expenses were largely paid by sponsors.

Combining what was paid by the city and outside sponsors, individually, the mayor's overall travel expenses last year were nearly $120,000.?

The city paid $178,000 for the mayor and all of the employees who traveled with her last year.?

Flights, food and a Sprinter van

Cantrell has taken 23 trips since January 2023, taking up 107 days through the end of May.

Records show that between May 23 and June 18 of 2023, a period of 25 days, Cantrell took five trips totaling 19 days. She recently wrapped up four trips in three weeks, ending with her return from Qatar on May 16.

The taxpayer bill for travel by Cantrell and staffers who have joined her includes more than $20,000 in conference registration fees and $24,000 in per diem reimbursements. Cantrell has personally racked up nearly $150,000 in expenses, although more than half that amount was paid by nonprofit associations and other outside groups. Staff expenses have totaled more than $200,000, almost all of that paid by the city.

The most expensive trip was a five-day jaunt to Las Vegas to attend the Super Bowl as part of a handoff ceremony to New Orleans, which is hosting the 2025 game.

NO.superbowllixpresser_8074.JPG

Saints and Pelicans owner Gayle Benson, far right, poses for photos with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry and his wife, Sharon, Doug Thornton, board member of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, and other officials with the New Orleans Super Bowl LIX Host Committee at the end of their event on Wednesday, February 21, 2024. (Photo by Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

The total cost was $33,000, and among the flights and other expenses, the city paid $16,000 for drivers and a Sprinter van to get the mayor and four other city employees around the city.

An itinerary prepared in advance indicates that city officials did not know how much tickets to the game would cost, but it noted “they will be expensive.” Cantrell’s schedule shows she and three staffers attended the game, but it’s not clear what, if anything, the city paid for tickets.

A six-day trip with two staffers to the World Climate Industry Expo in South Korea last year also cost taxpayers more than $30,000, though Cantrell’s expenses were partially paid by The New York Times Co., which hosted the event.

Cantrell’s international trips over the last year and a half — not including Qatar — have cost the city more than $70,000.

Discrepancies

The travel records include some curious discrepancies, including Cantrell’s recent trip to Nantucket for a 10-year reunion of her Aspen Institute fellowship class.

That trip, unlike the others, was not publicly announced and the City Attorney’s Office did not produce travel expenses for executive protection or any other staffers in response to a public records request for details. Cantrell did not report any lodging expenses there, but charged taxpayers $1,895 for airfare and per-diem reimbursements.

Records show Cantrell was the only employee who went on the trip and Cantrell’s official schedules show three executive protection officers were on duty during the days of the trip, from April 30 to May 4.

NO.Superbowl.060524

Governor Jeff Landry and state a local officials and members of the business community announced planning for hosting the Super Bowl next year. The event was held at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans Tuesday, June 4, 2024. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Saints owner Gayle Benson listen to the governor’s remarks.(Staff photo by John McCusker, The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com)

A fourth NOPD bodyguard, Jeffrey Vappie, who accompanied Cantrell on the Dubai trip, had been reassigned from the mayor’s detail the week before the Nantucket trip pending an administrative investigation.

The investigation concerned the nature of the relationship between Vappie and Cantrell. Vappie’s ex-wife accused the two of having an affair in a January 2023 divorce filing, which followed WVUE-TV reports showing Vappie and Cantrell spending long hours together in a city-owned apartment while Vappie was on the clock. Both Vappie and Cantrell have vehemently denied the allegations.

Vappie returned to Cantrell’s detail following an internal investigation. More recently, a second investigation — opened after the Metropolitan Crime Commission filed a complaint about a photo that appeared to show Vappie and Cantrell sharing a meal while he was on duty — resulted in another reassignment.

The Mayor’s Office has not responded to questions about the trip, including whether she traveled to Nantucket without security.

Comparisons

Cantrell isn’t the first New Orleans mayor to get dinged for a busy travel calendar.

Former Mayor Ray Nagin earned the derisive nickname “Nay-gone” from critics for a press tour to a string of U.S. cities following his re-election. Nagin was also criticized for trips to Cuba, China and Australia that occurred within a few months during his last full year in office.

It is hard to precisely compare Cantrell’s travel with her predecessor, former Mayor Mitch Landrieu, because of a lack of available records.

It is not clear whether Landrieu’s official schedules still exist. All records from his administration, and all previous mayors, are housed in New Orleans Public Library archives. Library officials say they have not found official schedules in 100 or so boxes in the Landrieu collection, although those files are still being sorted and organized.

What is the city getting?

Cantrell has argued that her travel brings the city benefits. For instance, it’s a way “to showcase the climate and sustainability action plans New Orleans has championed on a global stage,” she said when announcing her trip to the World Climate Industry Expo in May 2023.

Cantrell has recently pointed to a more concrete return on taxpayers’ investment: a $50,000 grant from the Bloomberg Youth Climate Action Fund, a program Cantrell said was “kickstarted” at the conference she attended in Dubai.

The city paid about $16,000 for Cantrell and Vappie to go there. The U.S. Conference of Mayors picked up an additional $25,000 in travel costs.

The grant money will be distributed in smaller amounts to people between the ages of 15 and 24 for “various youth-led climate initiatives,” such as tree plantings, public awareness programs and other city partnerships, according to a news release. The city could become eligible for an additional $100,000 next year.

“We have so many bright and talented young minds in our city, and I have heard directly from you how you are concerned about our climate and its effects on our great, but vulnerable, city,” Cantrell said in the news release.

Soon after returning from Dubai, Cantrell trumpeted another accomplishment. She had struck a deal with a coolant manufacturer on the trip to “optimize cooling equipment and achieve substantial energy savings and emissions reduction,” according to a news release.

But soon after, Gambit reported that Cantrell had signed the memorandum of understanding without consulting other city officials, who were dubious about the manufacturer’s track record and credentials. Nothing ever came of it.

“Citizens want to know, what are we getting in return?” Lee said. “You have to connect it to something. Right now we just hear about the travel, but we don't hear about the return on investment.”

Email Ben Myers at bmyers@theadvocate.com

Tags