Council Moves to Halt Distribution of Wisner Trust Funds

Aerial view of Port Fourchon, Louisiana. Photographer: Lee Tilton | License

On Thursday, the New Orleans City Council filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop Mayor LaToya Cantrell and her administration from distributing any funds from the Wisner Trust without council approval. The motion is part of an ongoing lawsuit filed in July.

The Wisner Trust

At the center of the suit is a question over whether Cantrell illegally extended a century-old land trust, unnecessarily ceding millions of dollars every year in revenue to private entities. The trust was created by philanthropist Edward Wisner in 1914, and gave around 50,000 acres of land to the City of New Orleans and named the city as trustee. However, he also stipulated that Tulane and Charity Hospital (now LSU Health Sciences Center) 20% of the revenue from the land, and the Salvation Army an additional 2%, leaving the city with a 58% share of the revenue. The trust was set to expire in 100 years.

However, in 1929 then-Mayor T. Semmes Walmsley gave 40% of the trust’s revenue to Wisner’s widow and her two daughters, reducing the city’s portion to 34.8%, Tulane and Charity’s share to 12% each, and the Salvation Army’s portion to 1.2%.

However, all that should have ended in 2014, when the trust was set to expire – a fact confirmed by the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.

An Illegal (and inexplicable) Extension

In 2014, then-mayor Mitch Landrieu temporarily extended the trust several times until leaving office. Then, in 2020 Mayor LaToya Cantrell made the extension permanent – without consulting the city council or the city’s legal department. This decision appears to violate not only the original terms of the trust but the appellate court ruling as well. In addition, the extension transferred oversight of the trust to a private board with no oversight from the City Council.

As a result, the council filed suit against Cantrell and the other members of the trust in July. Thursday’s motion seeks to put the requests of the lawsuit – to permanently stop the flow of funds to outside entities – into effect immediately, arguing that the city is suffering irreparable harm.

“First, millions of dollars in Trust revenues—revenues rightfully owned by the City—are being divested from the Council and the City of New Orleans annually in favor of hundreds of known and unknown purported beneficiaries and other unknown recipients of Trust revenues,” the motion states. “This divestment constitutes irreparable harm, as the enormous geographic and jurisdictional diversity among the purported beneficiaries and other unknown recipients renders it functionally impossible to recoup monies once distributed.”

A Nonprofit Connection

The filing comes just days after an announcement that Cantrell’s nonprofit, Forward Together New Orleans, is being investigated by the New Orleans Office of Inspector General. The nonprofit has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Wisner Trust. That money has been distributed across dozens of agencies involved in everything from preventing gun violence to offering rental assistance.

“I think their belief is that the money is being diverted to private sources that have a connection to the mayor and they just can’t see it,” said Dr. Robert Collins of Dillard University’s School of Public Policy.

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