ZURIK: Calls for broader investigations into NOPD officer spending time with Mayor Cantrell outside the office

Updated: Nov. 10, 2022 at 10:02 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Newly obtained records raise questions about the pay for a New Orleans police officer tasked with providing security for Mayor Latoya Cantrell.

The NOPD has already instructed its Public Integrity Bureau to investigate whether Jeffrey Vappie broke department policy by working more than 16 hours and 35 minutes in a 24-hour period, but a crime watchdog says that investigation should be widened.

FOX 8 started looking into Vappie’s NOPD timesheets after finding him spending hours during the workday inside a city-owned apartment with Mayor Cantrell. We compared his timesheets to the days he was assigned to protect the mayor and found he often logs long days. He’s also served as Cantrell’s security on some of her trips.

Surveillance images show NOPD officer Jeffrey Vappie and Mayor Cantrell visiting a city-owned...
Surveillance images show NOPD officer Jeffrey Vappie and Mayor Cantrell visiting a city-owned apartment, often during the work day(French Market Corporation)

In late August, Mayor Cantrell made a three-day trip to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with the Department of Justice. The mayor arrived on Sun., Aug. 21, after an early morning flight from New Orleans. Vappie accompanied her on the trip. The mayor had no meetings on her calendar that day, but Vappie billed taxpayers for 15 hours of work that day, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The next day, the mayor’s calendar only listed one event, a 1:30 p.m. meeting. That day, Vappie claimed to work another 15 hours, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Cantrell and Vappie flew back to New Orleans on Tues., Aug. 23. Records show the flight arrived before 10 a.m. The mayor’s schedule shows two other members of her security team were on duty that day. Despite not being assigned to protect the mayor, Vappie continued to get paid after landing in New Orleans, going off the clock at 9 p.m.

Dillard University Political Analyst Robert Collins believes taxpayers will be concerned about the payments.

“I think that the taxpayers are going to be concerned that we are paying city employees, but we have no evidence that they’re actually doing the work that we’re paying them for,” Collins said.

FOX 8 analyzed 45 days of surveillance video from a public camera right outside the entrance to the Upper Pontalba apartment, where we found both Vappie and Cantrell spending time. In those 45 days, he was the only member of the mayor’s four-person security team who entered the apartment.

For the 35 days Cantrell spent time in the apartment, Vappie spent time inside on 27 of those days.

Records show Vappie joined Cantrell’s security team in May 2021. Since then, he’s traveled more with the mayor than any other member of the detail. The longest-serving member of the mayoral executive team, Louis Martinez, hasn’t traveled once with her in two years. Robert Monlyn has traveled with Cantrell four times. Vappie accompanied her on seven trips in 16 months.

That includes a January trip to Washington, D.C. Cantrell and Vappie returned on a late afternoon flight on Jan. 21. That flight was the only item on Cantrell’s calendar that day. Records show the flight landed in New Orleans at 5:34 p.m. Still, Vappie billed taxpayers from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m.

In early April, Vappie traveled with the mayor to San Francisco for a conference on climate change. The meeting wrapped up at 12 p.m. on Fri., April 8. However, the two didn’t leave until the next night, taking a redeye back on Sat., April 9. The flight landed Sunday morning at 5:22 a.m. Despite getting back early, and having no other items on the mayor’s calendar for that day, Vappie stayed on the clock until midnight. Between Saturday and Sunday, when all that was on the mayor’s schedule was a flight from San Francisco to New Orleans, taxpayers paid Vappie for 30 hours of work.

Vappie also protected the mayor on an August trip for the failed Artemis Rocket Launch in Florida. The return flight landed in New Orleans on Aug. 30 at around 4 p.m. Vappie claimed on his timesheet that day that he worked from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

FOX 8 sent an email to the mayor’s office laying out each finding in this investigation. A spokesperson refused to respond to the request.

“Once again, we see this administration doesn’t answer direct questions from the media or from the public,” Collins said. “I mean these are simple questions. If they have the facts to respond and justify these expenditures, they should simply reply. And if they don’t have the documents, then they should investigate and find out why they don’t have the documents or don’t have the evidence. So, I think this is a pattern of this administration being asked direct questions and not replying to those questions.”

FOX 8′s questions go beyond travel.

Mayor Cantrell travel documents
Mayor Cantrell travel documents

On Sept. 19, 2021, Vappie and Monlyn were assigned to the mayor’s security detail. The mayor had no events scheduled that day. However, Vappie clocked in at 7 a.m. and didn’t clock out until 7 a.m. the next day, billing taxpayers for 24 straight hours of work. He then claimed he went off the clock for one hour, before clocking in again at 8 a.m. on Sept. 20 and working until 11 p.m. that night.

Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche says working 39 of 40 hours is unrealistic, except in an emergency situation.

“I could understand if there was a hurricane or something like that,” Goyeneche said. “But under normal circumstances, there’s four members of the security team. If somebody’s worked 24 hours straight, then there’s somebody else that should be available to work the next day. So those are things that investigators I think need to dig their teeth into and obtain answers to determine if there are in fact, any abnormalities with the hours that he’s billing the city or the relationship that exists between the mayor and a member of her security team.”

According to city records, Vappie didn’t attend a 2021 trip to Dayton, Ohio with the mayor, however, on the day she flew back, Vappie entered 17 hours of work on his timesheet.

On Sun., Oct. 17, 2021, the mayor’s schedule listed two community walks and a festival. That day, Vappie claimed to work from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m. on Mon., Oct. 18.

Before joining the mayor’s security team, Vappie made around $75,000 per year. He joined the mayor’s security team in May of last year, and his pay for the year jumped to $105,000. FOX 8 obtained pay records through September of this year and found Vappie had already made more than $120,000.

Some of that money has been made while Vappie spent long stretches at the city’s Upper Pontalba apartment.

That includes Aug. 9 when Vappie was paid by taxpayers for seven hours while inside the apartment. However, he also stayed there for close to five hours off the clock. That time raises questions for Goyeneche about possible violations of NOPD policy.

“If your video footage confirms that the officer is arriving separately from the mayor, it would seem to indicate that he’s not there to provide security to her. Because if she came and went on her own, and he arrived separately and left before she did, or after she did, then obviously he’s not driving her anywhere or providing security work for those hours,” Goyeneche says. “I think those are symptoms that need to be investigated by internal affairs to determine if, in fact, there are any violations of either law or departmental policies with respect to what’s been transpiring by a member of the mayor’s security team.”

After reviewing the findings, the NOPD launched an investigation and reassigned Vappie pending the outcome. The investigation is only focused on one type of violation, whether Vappie worked longer than 16 hours and 35 minutes in a 24-hour period on some days, which is against NOPD policy. FOX 8 found at least 12 times on Vappies timesheets from 2021 and 2022, where he clocked more than 16 hours and 35 minutes.

Goyeneche is calling for a broader investigation into other possible wrongdoing.

“There are police department rules that prohibit relationships that officers may have with public officials and the people that they may be doing work with. So, they don’t want to create a conflict of interest. The NOPD has conflict of interest policies. And if an officer becomes involved in any type of anything above a professional relationship with the subject of their work, they’re supposed to disclose that, and they get moved,” Goyeneche said. “So, I think what you have presented to me is sufficient evidence to justify a Public Integrity investigation into what has been transpiring between the mayor and a member of her security detail. And it’s not about trying to determine anything other than if the officer is in violation of any departmental policies or any criminal laws.”

New Orleans City Council members also say the PIB investigation isn’t enough. Council members J.P. Morrell and Joe Giarusso wrote a letter to federal judge Susie Morgan, who also oversees the NOPD consent decree program.

In the letter, Morrell and Giarusso say swift action is required to preserve the integrity of the investigations of the mayor.

“When you have these issues about double billing and what’s going on.... this is just another way of looking into it,” said Giarusso. “Police do have their internal PIB [investigation] but given everything that’s at stake, it needs to be separate and outside of the department.”

Goyeneche also wonders if Vappie received special treatment, which would be a violation of city policy. That policy says no special treatment or favoritism shall be given to anyone because of connections or relationships. He says if that is the case, the mayor could be in violation of that city policy.

However, for now, the NOPD isn’t looking at those potential violations that have made Vappie plenty of extra money in the hours he’s spent with the mayor outside the office.

FOX 8 asked the mayor’s office what members of her security team are supposed to be doing when they’re not assigned to protect her that day. The mayor’s office refused to answer the question. FOX 8 also asked the NOPD if the officers have NOPD duties when not assigned to the mayor, but it referred all questions about the mayor’s security detail to the city. The department did tell us an NOPD sergeant signs off on Vappie’s timesheets, but its unclear who that is.

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