Since January 2021, Mayor LaToya Cantrell has spent roughly $ 29,000 extra on airfare so she can fly business or first class instead of coach, despite a city policy that forbids employees from doing so, records show.
The city’s longstanding travel policy directs employees to pay the difference in price when they opt for seats in any section other than coach.
Cantrell spokesperson Gregory Joseph said the city’s legal office would review the matter, but noted that the policy places no timeline on when employees must reimburse. “Technically, she she’s not in violation of anything, is she?” Joseph said.
Joseph asked a reporter to email questions Monday morning, but had not responded by Monday evening.
Cantrell last week defended her business-class seats for overseas flights to Switzerland and France, saying the upgrades were necessary for her safety. “I need to be protected,” she said. “I need to be safe as I do business on behalf of the city of New Orleans.”
She has not explained the thousands of dollars she rang up in seat upgrades in the last two years on at least nine trips to Boston, Miami and Washington. Those costs were tied to meetings with politicians and events hosted by the US Conference of Mayors or the African American Mayors Association. Cantrell flew first-class in every instance, records show.
Last week, Cantrell said she couldn’t explain why she and her staff opted to stay in Paris at a hotel that averaged $ 726 a night.
“I can’t tell you why,” said Cantrell, who was paid a $ 181,000 salary last year. “I would say because that’s what was available. I think it’s common sense.”
Rosanna Barnes, owner of the city’s Metairie-based travel agency, Going Places Inc., said she books the accommodations that Cantrell asks for.
“I give what’s requested,” Barnes said. “I don’t decide how the mayor travels.”
The Times-Picayune reviewed nearly 500 pages of travel expenses charged by Cantrell and City Council members since Jan. 1, 2021. Only council members Eugene Green and Oliver Thomas charged taxpayers for travel. There’s no indication that Green charged for first-class travel. Thomas’ airline receipts don’t detail what seats he purchased on the three trips he reported.
Cantrell’s flights totaled more than $ 38,200. An NOPD recruit starts at a salary around $ 40,300.
The city’s travel policy predates 2012, when Cantrell first took office as a council member, and requires employees “to purchase the lowest airfare available.” Those who don’t are “solely responsible for the difference in cost.”
Cantrell aides who accompanied the mayor on her trips flew coach in every instance reviewed by The Times-Picayune, except one trip to Washington last year when her security guard, Robert Monlyn, a New Orleans police officer, joined her in first class.
That made it easy to determine the difference in cost between a seat in coach and a seat in the front of the plane.
On a trip to Washington in January, for instance, Cantrell’s flights cost $ 2,279; an aide’s were $ 250. For another April trip to Washington for a conference, Cantrell’s flights were $ 1,016; an aide’s, $ 464. And for her by lei business-class tickets overseas, Cantrell’s flights eclipsed her by lei aides’ coach rates by more than $ 24,500.
The city’s travel policy allows employees to upgrade to business-class seats only if the flight is longer than 10 hours. That only applied to Cantrell’s return trip from Switzerland. But the city mandates that any business class upgrade cannot exceed 110% of the coach rate.
Cantrell’s upgrades cost far more than that. Her Switzerland flights by lei, for instance, cost $ 9,710. That’s roughly 2,000% the cost of the lowest coach rate charged by her aides di lei: $ 473.
Cantrell faced a storm of criticism for her travel this summer, which drew her away from the city while a crime wave swept across New Orleans and NOPD was hemorrhaging officers.
She canceled an August trip to Singapore and vowed to “embed” with police. She has also emphasized that the city must eliminate a yet-to-be determined number of positions amid budget constraints, while she plans to raise salaries for 4,300 employees.
The city’s revenues may not reach pre-pandemic levels for another three years, officials have said. Still, Cantrell at a news conference last week defended the costs of her travel di lei as necessary expenses to help boost the city’s profile and spur development.
“It is my job,” Cantrell said. “I will continue to do my job. It was absolutely worth it. “
Cantrell was scheduled to be in Florida on Monday for the test launch of NASA’s new moon rocket, which was built at the NASA facility in New Orleans East. Barnes, the Going Places owner, said Cantrell bought a ticket from Southwest Airlines.
Her seat was in coach, Barnes said.