The chief judge of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court set a Friday hearing date over a push by Attorney General Jeff Landry's office to remove the entire court from further involvement in a probe into Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell's credit card use as a New Orleans city councilwoman.
Chief Judge Laurie White will preside over a hearing in which Landry's office is expected to argue that none of the 12 criminal court judges can escape at least an appearance of bias in what is not yet even a criminal case.
The 13th judge in the courthouse, Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell, is LaToya Cantrell's father-in-law.
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Landry's office cites Cantrell's "connexity to the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court as future Mayor of the City of New Orleans," among other reasons for recusing the entire court.
The court gets significant funding from the city -- about $3 million in 2017 -- and occupies a city-owned building.
Orleans Parish Civil District Court, which handles numerous lawsuits against mayors and city agencies, also occupies city property but is not reliant on the city for funding.
Landry's office also cited reasons that Criminal District Judge Camille Buras gave Friday when she recused herself from the matter after she signed subpoenas Nov. 27 for Cantrell's bank records.
Buras cited a pending motion by Cantrell's attorneys to quash those subpoenas, writing that a hearing on that motion "would implicate, on apparent multiple bases," the state law that lays out the grounds for a judge's recusal.
In arguing for a recusal, Landry's office says the court's judicial administrator, Rob Kazik, "has now become a potential witness in a motion pending before the Court." It did not say why Kazik might be called to testify.
Even as she recused herself, Buras sealed the subpoenas until it's decided which judge will be overseeing the matter.
Landry's office has asked that the Louisiana Supreme Court appoint an ad hoc judge to preside over the investigation and any criminal prosecution that could result from it.
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No criminal charges have been filed against Cantrell, who was dogged in her successful mayoral bid by allegations from her runoff opponent, Desiree Charbonnet, that Cantrell misused her city-issued credit cards and then reimbursed the city over questionable charges days after qualifying to run.
All told, Cantrell paid about $9,000 back to the city, before and after she qualified.
Cantrell and her campaign have argued that the reimbursements proved she was diligent in protecting taxpayer money. Charbonnet's campaign argued the opposite: That they proved she misspent city funds.
The subpoenas marked the first sign that Landry's office is running with a complaint against Cantrell that was referred to his office in a highly public fashion by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro, a Charbonnet supporter, revealed in October that his office had received an "anonymous complaint" about Cantrell's spending and had forwarded it to Landry's office.
Cannizzaro’s airing of the complaint - apparently the same document Charbonnet’s camp gave to news media - prompted Cantrell’s camp to suggest the DA was using his office for political purposes and to file an ethics complaint against him.
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A later examination of records from all seven city council offices showed that Cantrell’s spending, though higher, was not significantly different from that of her colleagues.
The state Legislative Auditor's Office has separately requested information on the credit card use by all council members from the council's administrative offices.
But Landry's probe appears to be focused on Cantrell; the subpoenas signed last Monday were for her records alone.
Under the law, a judge must step away if he or she is biased or personally interested in a case; if the judge is closely related to the accused or an attorney in the case; if the judge is a witness; or for other reasons the judge wouldn't be able to conduct a fair trial.
In the recusal motion, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Derbes said state prosecutors met with resistance when they approached several judges about signing the subpoenas for Cantrell's bank records.
Six other judges declined to sign the subpoenas before they reached Buras. Five cited a conflict of interest, and the sixth clamed he lacked jurisdiction, Derbes wrote.
The fact that half of the 12 judges turned tail when presented the subpoenas gives Landry's office good reason to seek an outside jurist, said Loyola law school professor Dane Ciolino.
"That kind of makes sense. It would be different if just one judge refused to do it. But since you have so many judges who have voluntarily recused (from signing the subpoenas), that demonstrates the problem," Ciolino said.
Asking to remove the entire court at once, rather than judge by judge, "is not usually done," he said, "but it's an unusual case."...Read more