ZURIK: NOPD investigating officer frequently inside Cantrell’s city-owned apartment
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Newly-obtained surveillance video has led to more questions about how Mayor LaToya Cantrell is spending her time and taxpayer dollars.
While investigating whether Mayor Cantrell was living at the city-owned Upper Pontalba Apartments, FOX 8 obtained 45 days of surveillance video from a French Market Corporation camera outside the building. That video showed Cantrell spent many hours inside the apartment, often during the workday, and sometimes stayed overnight.
The head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, Rafael Goyeneche, said that could be a violation of a city policy that states city property is for work-related purposes and not personal benefit.
As FOX 8 looked into more of the surveillance video, we found the videos show Mayor Cantrell is also spending hours there with one member of her security team, leading to questions about what work is being done as the two collect taxpayer-funded paychecks.
On Aug. 2 at 8:03 a.m., Mayor Cantrell arrived at the Pontalba apartment. She was accompanied by a member of her security detail, NOPD officer Jeffrey Vappie.
Vappie spent five hours and 40 minutes of his workday inside the apartment that day.
FOX 8 requested email and cell phone records from Cantrell between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. that day.
The city responded that the mayor didn’t make one work call on her cell phones for those eight hours, and only sent two emails.
Each email was two sentences long. The first, sent at 10:56 a.m. was regarding a complaint about a mechanical permit. It read: “Ms. Gloria, please forward to Tammie for me. Thank you in advance.”
The second, at 2:06 p.m., was sent to someone at the Vieux Carré Commission and read, “Bryan, I appreciate your response and clarity, it matters! Thank you very much.”
Dillard University Political Analyst Robert Collins believes taxpayers will have questions.
“It’s fair to ask questions because this is a taxpayer-owned property, and these are employees paid by the taxpayers. If the mayor is off duty, and she’s at home in her private residence, then whatever she does there is her business. Nobody’s going to ask questions about that. The citizens are not going to concern themselves with that,” Collins said. “But when you are staying in a taxpayer-owned building, and you have employees that are paid by the taxpayers, the taxpayers have a right to know what you are doing in that property. And the taxpayers have a right to know what duties you’re performing during those hours.”
During FOX 8′s review of the 45 days of video, on 35 of those days, Cantrell visited the apartment. Officer Vappie made 47 visits on 27 of those days, often stopping in more than once a day and spending more than 112 hours inside the apartment.
Of the four officers paid to protect Mayor Cantrell, Vappie is the only one who entered the apartment. The other NOPD officers, Louis Martinez, Robert Monlyn, and Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Ellis never entered.
FOX 8 sent a letter to the mayor’s communications team, laying out some of the findings and asking for a response.
In a statement, the mayor’s office said, in part, “the surveillance and its subsequent publication of the Mayor is irresponsible and puts her and her family’s safety at risk.”
But Collins believes the mayor should be transparent about how she’s spending her time.
“If you are a public official, and you walk into a public building, there is no expectation of privacy, because you are a public official paid by the taxpayers and you are entering a public building that is owned by the taxpayers. The taxpayers do have the right to know what’s going on in the property that they own,” Collins said.
On Aug. 16, about an hour before Vappie clocked in for work, he arrived at the apartment.
Twenty minutes before his NOPD shift started, he and the mayor left in workout clothes. They returned more than an hour later and stayed inside the apartment from 10 a.m. until after 2 p.m.
According to her city calendar, Mayor Cantrell was scheduled to make welcoming remarks at a Baptist foreign mission convention at 9:30 a.m. that day. However, she was at the apartment during that time. FOX 8 confirmed with the convention that she didn’t attend but sent someone else in her place.
During that time, the mayor also missed a 1:30 p.m. pop-in meeting with Sen. Bill Cassidy’s team.
At 2:16 p.m. Vappie left the Pontalba. He had changed from his workout clothes into a suit.
At 2:37 p.m., seven minutes after a Sewerage and Water Board preparation meeting was supposed to start in her office, Mayor Cantrell left the apartment dressed for work.
According to a response to a records request from FOX 8, Mayor Cantrell didn’t send one email or make one work phone call during the four and a half hours she and Vappie spent in the apartment.
“Taxpayers are wondering, is business getting done? If businesses getting done, are you carrying out your official duties? Are you doing the taxpayers’ business? I think that’s really the questions that the taxpayers would have,” said Collins said.
NOPD timesheets from Aug. 9 show Vappie was paid from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. According to the mayor’s schedule, Vappie wasn’t assigned to her security detail that day, and the city would not tell FOX 8 about his assignment for the day.
However, at 7:55 a.m., the surveillance camera showed him entering the Upper Pontalba Apartments with a grocery bag and a case of bottled water. Mayor Cantrell arrived a short time later, at 8:42 a.m. Both Vappie and Cantrell remained at the apartment for most of the workday. Vappie left at 3:09 p.m.
Tulane law professor Emeritus Joel Friedman says the city should answer what Vappie’s assignments are when he’s not on the mayor’s security detail for the day.
“That tells me … we’re paying the police to have this guy work: if he’s assigned to do X, but he’s not doing X. He’s allegedly protecting the mayor in an apartment where she probably doesn’t need protection. Again, that’s not only the unseemly aspect of it, but it’s a misuse of his time,” Friedman said.
Later in the evening on Aug. 9, after he went off the clock, Vappie and Cantrell returned to the apartment a little after 8:30 p.m. Vappie left about four hours later, at 12:42 a.m. Cantrell left about 40 minutes later, at 1:26 a.m.
That night, city records show Cantrell didn’t send one email or make a single phone call for the city on her cell phones between 8 p.m. Aug. 9 and 2 a.m. Aug. 10. However, even off the clock, Vappie spent more than four hours at the Pontalba.
“They’re going there for long periods of time, where it appears she’s not doing any work during that time. No phone calls, no meetings, no emails. What is he doing there? Why is he, of all the officers on her detail, the only one that takes her into the apartment and stays there with her for hours? And if she needs protection inside this apartment, why is he the only one of her detail that ever goes in there? And why, sometimes, does he leave before she does... letting her walk out the door and walk to some other car blocks away, unprotected by him?” Friedman said.
FOX 8 found many other examples.
On Sept. 9, Vappie spent nearly seven hours inside the apartment. The mayor’s calendar shows he wasn’t scheduled as her security, however, he was paid for 12 hours of work that day.
FOX 8 found Vappie entering the apartment many mornings and leaving late at night, often alone. He sometimes arrived before Cantrell.
There were also several days when he went onto the apartment’s balcony to water plants while being paid by the NOPD. That includes Sept. 7, when he watered the plants on the balcony at 6:10 p.m. NOPD timesheets show him on the clock until 8 p.m. that night.
Records show Vappie joined Cantrell’s security team in May 2021.
So far in 2022, he’s earned more money than the other NOPD officers on her team. With overtime, he’s already made more than $120,000 through September 2022.
Vappie has also accompanied Cantrell on some of her trips. After reviewing travel records, FOX 8 found Vappie is the only officer who flew first class with her. His ticket for that trip to San Francisco cost taxpayers $821.
Last March, Cantrell also appointed Vappie to the board of the Housing Authority of New Orleans. He doesn’t list any experience in public housing on his LinkedIn page, and Collins says having a public employee on a public board could become a conflict.
“That raises questions, because generally speaking, it’s standard practice not to appoint public employees to public boards. Simply because there could be a potential conflict of interest, especially when you’re dealing with a law enforcement officer. There could be investigations that he may have to oversee,” Collins said.
Vappie’s first HANO meeting on March 29 started at 4 p.m. and lasted past 6 p.m. For the entire meeting, Vappie was paid by taxpayers to work for the NOPD. He also attended HANO meetings on Aug. 23 and Sept. 20 while being paid to protect and serve taxpayers, FOX 8 found.
The response the mayor’s office sent FOX 8 defended Vappie’s appointment.
“In his duties as Executive Protection, he is called on to serve and protect not only the residents but also the Mayor of this city. His service on the Housing Authority of New Orleans Board of Directors is but another demonstration of his commitment to the City of New Orleans and her people,” the statement said in part.
Both Collins and Friedman say questions should ultimately be directed to the mayor since Vappie is her subordinate. Both say taxpayers will likely want to know why the mayor and one member of her security team spend so many hours of the workday alone inside a city-owned building.
On Thurs., Aug. 11, other than a few quick trips outside the apartment, Vappie and Cantrell were there from about 7:45 a.m. until 1:45 p.m.
The next day, Aug. 12, both arrived around 8:30 a.m. and left separately after 11 a.m.
On Aug. 18, the mayor watered plants on the balcony at 2:49 p.m. About an hour later, at 3:40 p.m., Vappie arrived in his NOPD uniform and stayed inside for more than an hour.
The response the mayor’s office sent to FOX 8 after we laid out the details of the investigation didn’t directly address the points raised in the story.
“While we do not comment on the Mayor’s executive protection policies and protocols, we do attest to the fact that Officer Vappie and all members of the Mayor’s Executive Protection team personify the level of devotion expected and required as a public servant to the City of New Orleans. We acknowledge their sacrifice and honor their service,” the statement says in part.
Friedman and Collins say the mayor should respond directly to taxpayers who are paying thousands of dollars for an NOPD Officer and the mayor to spend part of many workdays outside the office.
The NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau has opened an internal investigation into Vappie’s possible payroll violations “based on question raised,” including whether he logged more than 16 hours and 35 minutes of work in any 24-hour period.
Officer Vappie has been reassigned from Mayor Cantrell’s security team pending the results of the investigation.
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