City Council Finds Cantrell Admin Used Public Funds on Anti-Recall Mailer

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An investigation done by the New Orleans City Council found that Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Office of Communication deliberately ignored city procurement rules and violated state law when it sent out anti-recall fliers earlier this year. The flier touted improvements in infrastructure, public safety, and the city’s economy under Cantrell’s administration in an effort to encourage voters to support Cantrell during the recall vote.

“The Office of Communications engaged in a political campaign to build public support among likely voters for the Mayor specifically and exclusively during the recall period,” said a summary of the evidence gathered by the City Council’s investigation. “The Office deliberately sought to violate the City’s procurement rules when it engaged Mercury Public Affairs. Further, the use of public funds to pay for the campaign, which prominently featured the Mayor’s name and image, is a clear violation of state law. The cost of the mailer campaign as initially contemplated would have cost nearly $600,000.”

The report, read by City Council President J.P. Morrell during today’s Government Affairs Committee Meeting, went on to outline several findings:

  • Finding One: The mailer was a targeted campaign aimed explicitly to likely voters for the specific purpose of building support for Mayor Cantrell, and was never intended to educate all residents. The mayor’s office of communications had multiple conversations with Mercury Public Affairs outlining a target audience for the mailer.
  • Finding Two: The mailer for the campaign was tied directly to the recall period.
  • Finding Three: The contract with Mercury Public Affairs violated the city’s procurement rule for professional service contracts, which caps the maximum annual contract for a public service announcement not publicly bid at $15,000. In order to get around this rule, New Orleans Director of Communications Gregory Joseph directed Mercury Public Affairs to split the contract into two separate agreements, with one backdated to 2022.
  • Finding Four: The mailer campaign served a partisan, political purpose that violates state law. In spite of being advised of this by the city attorney, topics covered in the mailer continued to feature political messaging.
  • Finding Five: Had the Office of Communications executed the mailer campaign as originally planned, it would have cost the city nearly $600,000. The plan was revised to avoid city procurement rules, though the mailer still cost the city $30,000 in public funds.

“Because of the nature of this mailer, the fact that council authorized an investigation, we have proven this is a situation where the procurement rules were violated, but this could be indicative of a much larger problem,” said City Council president J.P. Morrell. “We do not know if this is but one instance in which we are seeing contracts split into multiple contracts to avoid going to public bid.”

Morrell says that his office has begun working with other council members to draft an ordinance that would limit Cantrell and future administration’s ability to exploit the professional service loophole, which will be introduced during the council meeting on July 27. The council has also issued subpoenas to Communication Director Gregory Joseph and Deputy Director Leslie Thomas to appear before the council on August 16.

“These findings are largely based upon information collected through subpoenas of public documents. I want to give the parties involved the opportunity to provide context as to why they said what they said and they did what they did, and to give them the opportunity to provide a rationale or specific reasons why they believe their activities did not violate public bid law and did not violate state law,” Morrell said.

The final report will be sent to all parties involved and the city’s inspector general’s office.

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