By Lee Zurik & Dannah Sauer | WVUE | December 1, 2022
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) – FOX 8 obtains records the City of New Orleans first refused to turn over after a FOX 8 attorney sent a demand letter to the City Attorney’s Office. The City Attorney first said the records were part of an ongoing investigation. However, a letter from attorney Scott Sternberg argued the timesheets FOX 8 requested were indeed public records and should be turned over.
Now, those records raise new questions about how Mayor Cantrell and a member of her security detail spend taxpayer dollars.
Prior FOX 8 investigations have raised questions about whether Mayor Cantrell uses the city-owned apartment for personal use. Those investigations also found one member of Cantrell’s four-person security team, NOPD Officer Jeffrey Vappie, spent many hours during the workday inside the apartment with Cantrell. Vappie is the only member of the executive protection team seen entering the apartment in 45 days of security video obtained through a public records request.
The new records as well as newly obtained security camera video from outside the city-owned Upper Pontalba apartment center on a six-day stretch in late September and early October.
Records show that on Friday, Sept. 30, Cantrell and Vappie boarded a flight to Los Angeles, California. They arrived just before 10:00 a.m. An Uber receipt shows a 10:34 a.m. ride from the airport to the hotel where the pair stayed.
Vappie and Cantrell didn’t submit any other Uber receipts for reimbursement that day, until 6:54 p.m., when a driver stopped at the hotel and drove to a 24,000 sq. ft. mansion in Beverly Hills, where Mayor Cantrell attended a dinner with Brad Pitt. After two hours, receipts show a return trip to the hotel.
Vappie billed taxpayers for 16 hours of work that day, going off the clock at 10:00 p.m. about an hour after the return trip to the hotel.
The next morning, the pair flew back to New Orleans. The flight landed back in New Orleans at 4:00 p.m. However, Vappie clocked an additional six hours of work, staying on the clock until 10 p.m. Taxpayers paid him for a 16-hour workday.
Dillard University political analyst Robert Collins says the hours and Cantrell’s decision to bring Vappie on the trip are not a good use of police protection or taxpayer money. “I mean, you have to go through security to get on an airplane. We know that if it’s an event where Brad Pitt and other VIPs were, we know that there was security at that event, protecting all the guests. So, most situations don’t require a security detail to actually fly with the mayor or with any public official, because there’s going to be security meeting them there at the event that they’re going to and there’s going to be security there,” Collins said.
The next day, Oct. 1, Cantrell’s schedule showed two security officers on duty, Louis Martinez and Robert Monlyn. However, taxpayers also paid Vappie for 15 hours of work, from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
According to the NOPD, the mayor’s security team typically works four days a week. That includes three 12-hour shifts and one shift of 8 hours and 35 minutes.
“It appears that you have one officer who has a unique schedule that no other officer on the security detail has. It raises more questions, because why does one officer have a particular schedule that’s unique to him? And the other officers on the security detail, seem to have normal rotating schedules that are standard within an NOPD security detail,” Collins said.
The week Vappie went to Beverly Hills, taxpayers paid him for six straight days. The city has refused to tell FOX 8 what, if any, responsibilities members of the mayor’s executive protection team are supposed to fulfill when on the clock but not assigned to the mayor’s security detail for the day.
The mayor’s schedule was light on Oct. 1. The only event on her calendar was a graduation ceremony at noon.
That day, security officer Louis Martinez worked 9:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. Officer Robert Monlyn clocked 7:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. Again, despite not being on her detail that day, Vappie clocked 5:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.
In one day, taxpayers paid officers for 43 hours of work to protect the mayor, who had one scheduled event.
The NOPD says timesheets for executive protection officers are approved by a Sergeant but hasn’t named that person.
Collins says questioning timesheets submitted by the mayor’s security team could cause a conflict for any NOPD employee. “Certainly, it would be difficult because I think it’s fair to say they would be afraid of retaliation from the mayor or from someone in the mayor’s office or from someone in the upper power structure within city hall. So, I think any officer that intends to move up to be promoted, to perhaps have a shot at being a precinct commander or something like this, is going to be afraid to go against the mayor,” Collins said.
On Saturday, Oct. 1, security camera video shows Cantrell spent some of the afternoon at the apartment. She spent time watering plants before leaving the apartment alone in the late afternoon.
When Martinez arrived at 7:22 p.m., Cantrell wasn’t there. She walked up from the French Quarter about 10 minutes after he arrived, and the pair left. At 10:50 p.m. that night, Cantrell returned to the apartment alone. The security camera footage didn’t show Vappie at the Pontalba that day.
A crime watchdog wonders what Vappie did for the 15 hours he claimed to work.
“That’s what the investigation is going to have to uncover what the public purpose was and the legitimate public purpose for him billing for those hours when there were two other security members on duty at the time. So, what’s supposed to happen is they’re supposed to be two security members available to the mayor? On that particular date, she had three assigned to her, and this is another example of the misuse of her authority. And the public is faced with footing the bill,” said Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche.
On Sept. 26, Vappie wasn’t on Cantrell’s security detail, but the NOPD paid him to work from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. The security camera video shows him arriving at the Pontalba apartment at 5:24 p.m. alone. Cantrell arrived about an hour later. For two and a half hours of his shift, Vappie stayed inside the apartment.
Right now, the New Orleans Inspector General is investigating Cantrell’s use of the apartment, and a source says that the investigation could expand to involve Vappie’s time there. The NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau is also investigating Vappies timesheets. He was removed from Cantrell’s detail and reassigned when that investigation began.
Cantrell is also under federal investigation, and Goyeneche says he hopes FOX 8′s findings become a part of that probe. “I mean, that’s why there has to be an independent investigation. I’m hopeful that the reported federal investigation expands to include some of these potential abuses because they’re all interconnected.”