Attorney General Jeff Landry has had a pretty good November. He dined at Mar-a-Lago with Trump insiders, took part in a high-level fundraising reception where he made important contacts, and is poised to soon assume the presidency of the National Association of Attorneys General. Back home, Landry can’t wait to pour over mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell’s city credit card statements he has subpoenaed with a fine tooth comb.
So far the credit card controversy has played out in a series of “he said, she said” statements. Now the gloves come off as Landry’s tough, seasoned investigators take sworn testimony. No other councilmembers’ records have been requested by Landry so far, though the legislative auditor is reviewing all of them.
Landry is not obligated to take the investigation to an Orleans Parish grand jury. The law allows him to issue indictments if he chooses. Since this case is such a political hot potato, Landry and Cantrell are better served by a complete, methodical investigation that could take several months.
Generally speaking, an attorney general can persuade a grand jury to issue an indictment if the AG really wants it. Just like the still-unnamed Criminal Court judge who signed the subpoena to move the process down the road, a grand jury could be similarly motivated to approve an indictment. Jurors are typically smart people who follow the evidence. They want to act responsibly but could be swayed by emotion.
The credit card information released during the campaign shows potentially questionable areas in Cantrell’s spending and that of several other Councilmembers. Cantrell can explain away many – but probably not all – of her expenditures. Though most voters sympathize with Cantrell, some will always believe she received a four-year interest free loan from the taxpayers.
During the last weeks of the campaign, Cantrell was said to be meeting with law firms who might represent her in what looks to be her first major battle. Some lawyers reportedly turned Cantrell down because she was unable to provide the large upfront retainer they normally receive.
Though Landry will never be popular with minority voters, investigating Cantrell will add value to Landry’s reputation outside the city. It could build his brand as an arch-conservative, no-nonsense kind of AG who does not tolerate corruption at any level.
Mitch Landrieu used the monument issue to hit the national circuit. Landry can use Cantrell as his personal whipping horse for the next two years while he explores his many political options which include running for re-election, challenging Gov. John Bel Edwards, or seeking a platform on the Washington stage.
The investigation brings to mind New Orleans’ dark past as a city where corruption was tolerated. Taking any steps backward would be disappointing to all those who toiled tirelessly to rebuild the city’s reputation. Let’s hope the City Council institutes new credit card safeguards quickly and that the investigation ends with a whimper. That would be the best Christmas gift possible for Cantrell.
FIRST CITY COURT CLERK ELLEN HAZEUR FOCUSES ON CUSTOMER SERVICE
Ellen Hazeur, who has served as Clerk of First City Court for more than sixteen years, believes that helping citizens better understand how to navigate through the eviction or small claims court process is the most valuable service her office can provide. In 2016, more than 9,000 cases were filed in First City Court, including 497 small claims cases, 4803 evictions and 3923 civil cases.
“We treat every case as important. Many people who come to First City Court are representing themselves and can be scared and overwhelmed by the judicial system,” explained Hazeur. “They have limited knowledge of the law and which forms they need. My staff is user-friendly and always willing to go that extra step to guide both plaintiffs and defendants through the process,” she said.
A native of New Orleans and graduate of Xavier University and Tulane University School of Law, Hazeur was elected to the New Orleans City Council from Council District E in 1994. During her term Hazeur helped bring Police Chief Richard Pennington to New Orleans. “New Orleans was a safer city with less crime when I was on the Council. I also helped create an economic development plan for New Orleans East and got Entergy to begin a maintenance program which made underground infrastructure improvements.” Hazeur was involved in increasing the number of parks and playgrounds in the district.
After six years on the City Council, Hazeur decided to use a different part of her legal training and was elected Clerk. When she came on board, Hazeur discovered that the office was in terrible need of infrastructure upgrades. Though financial resources have been extremely limited, Hazeur has implemented several technology changes including a subscriber-based remote access system.
Hazeur has been studying the e-filing system recently implemented by Civil District Court Clerk Dale Atkins with a goal of creating a similar system when funding permits. “We must have the funds to develop and maintain our own system.” Hazeur has received technology grants in the past and is always seeking additional funding.
Hazeur says her office has also been impacted by the poor working conditions at the Civil District Court building. “We need to get a firm plan in place for a new building” she said. In addition to a larger space because of a growing case load, Hazeur says her office has been challenged by frequent power outages and lack of climate control for document storage. “Our customers and staff should not have to face these inconveniences,” she said.
Like many municipal offices, Hazeur struggled to get up and running after Hurricane Katrina. Operating with reduced staff, Hazeur relocated the office to Gonzales but came back to the Algiers Courthouse every week for hearings, especially evictions. Landlords could not assume tenants were not returning. They had to go through the eviction process. “Our commitment was to provide critical services to the citizens as quickly as possible. We lived in a motel for months to meet that goal,” she said.
In 2010, Hazeur ran for an open Civil District Court judgeship and lost. Qualifying will take place in early January for another open CDC seat. Hazeur has not indicated whether she is considering that race. Others who have already expressed an interest include former judicial candidates Richard Perque, Taetrece Harrison and Omar Mason.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. Her current clients include District B City Council candidate Seth Bloom and At-Large City Council candidate Helena Moreno.