Zurik: Recordings reveal Cantrell administration tried to reinstate Vappie to security team while under NOPD investigation
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Over several weeks at the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023, detectives with the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau interviewed at least eight people as they investigated the timesheets of Officer Jeffrey Vappie. Vappie was reassigned from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s security detail after a series of Fox 8 investigations found the pair spending long hours together inside a city-owned French Quarter apartment, often while Vappie was on the clock for the NOPD.
Those interviewed as part of the NOPD investigation included several current and former members of Cantrell’s executive protection team. However, in those interviews, the officers sometimes gave conflicting information about the inner workings of the detail team.
Fox 8′s investigation found many instances of Vappie entering the door that leads to the Upper Pontalba apartment with a key. However, during his interview, Vappie claimed he didn’t have a key to the apartment, and that he was unsure whether anyone on the team had one.
Taxpayers also paid Vappie to provide protection for Mayor Cantrell on trips. He traveled with the mayor more often than any other member of her security team. Prior to Vappie joining the team, Cantrell never took executive protection with her on trips. When asked why that changed, officers gave conflicting answers.
PIB Interviewer: “At some point you have started traveling. Can you tell me when did that happen? Do you remember?
Officer Robert Monlyn: “I don’t remember off-hand, but I know it was definitely after there was two threats towards the mayor. It was two white guys that threatened, two separate ones, but, and I think like around that time, like right after, somewhere around there, that’s when...”
PIB Interviewer: “When was that?”
Monlyn: “I don’t remember.”
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However, when Deputy Charles Ellis -- the team’s only member from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office -- was questioned about travel, he never mentioned a threat. Experts have told Fox 8 that if a threat existed against the mayor, all members of her security team would have been made aware.
Ellis: “The mayor didn’t start traveling until Vappie came on.”
PIB interviewer: “Ok, talk to me about that.”
Ellis: “Only thing I can tell you is once he came on, we were told and we were told by the mayor’s scheduler Katrina Simmons, that, ‘Hey, guys, y’all gonna start traveling with the mayor.’ So, I’m like, wait, where did this come from? Because we didn’t hear it from the mayor, you know. She said, ‘The mayor told me she gonna start taking security on her trips with her.’ OK, so I started preparing my stuff, get my luggage, because I’m thinking, ‘OK, we gonna be in rotation,’ you know? Get my luggage, get my passport and, you know, so I can be ready. And never got called at all.”
The hours clocked by officers while Cantrell was out of town also didn’t seem to add up. The former head of the security team -- NOPD Sgt. Wondell Smith -- told investigators that when he was on the team, he never worked more than eight hours and 35 minutes per day when Cantrell was traveling.
Smith said he never worked a 12-hour day when Cantrell was out of town. But after Smith was reassigned off the team, many security detail members regularly clocked 12-hour days when the mayor was out of the state.
Vappie told investigators he didn’t clock long days unless he accompanied the mayor on a trip.
PIB interviewer: “If there was a time that your payroll was over 16 hours and 35 minutes, entered.”
PIB interviewer: “You were traveling?”
PIB interviewer: “If there was a time that your payroll was over 16 hours in 35 minutes, and you were not traveling, would that payroll will be accurate or incorrect?”
Vappie: “That’d be incorrect.”
PIB interviewer: “So you would never, you should never have been paid for anything over 12 hours when you were not traveling.”
However, those claims don’t appear to be true. Records obtained by Fox 8 show that in September 2021, Vappie clocked at least 12 hours every day that he worked except one. On Sept. 19, he billed taxpayers for 17 hours of work. On Sept. 20, he clocked 22 hours in one day. Cantrell wasn’t traveling on either of those days. Her schedule for Sept. 19 doesn’t list a single meeting or event. It only reads “all day New Orleans.”
Video from a public security camera outside the Upper Pontalba apartment showed Vappie spent many hours there, sometimes watering plants on the balcony or exercising with the mayor.
Vappie: “So, I would show up at the Pontalba, dressed to walk, we would go walking. And then after that, I would go, had access to go, to the Pontalba, change my clothes, and then go to work.”
PIB Interviewer: “From the Pontalba?”
Vappie: “From the Pontalba.”
PIB Interviewer: “And you would change your clothes at the Pontalba?”
Vappie: “That’s correct.”
PIB Interviewer: “In the same house with your principal?”
Vappie: “Different places.”
PIB Interviewer: “That’s not what I asked you. In the same house with your principal?”
Vappie: “Absolutely, yeah, absolutely.”
Most other security team members who were interviewed said entering the apartment was unusual. Monlyn said he had never been inside the apartment while he wasn’t at work. Officer Kristy Johnson-Stokes, a former team member, recalled only going to the apartment for special events, including a New Year’s Eve party the mayor threw.
At least two officers told investigators they found Vappie’s behavior embarrassing, with Monlyn saying he didn’t think Vappie should be returned to the protection detail.
Zurik: Vappie’s return to Mayor Cantrell’s protection detail scuttled, NOPD federal monitor says
The timing of the interviews also raises questions. Federal consent decree monitor Jonathan Aronie said in a recent public meeting that right before the mid-December retirement of NOPD Supt. Shaun Ferguson, someone within City Hall tried to get Vappie reinstated to Cantrell’s executive protection team.
“Yes. There was an effort to put Officer Vappie back on the mayor’s executive protection team prior to the completion of the PIB investigation,” Aronie said. “When the monitoring team found out about it, we reached out to multiple members of the NOPD leadership team who quickly and effectively quashed that effort.”
The audio recordings reveal that attempted reinstatement came before the PIB had conducted most of its interviews. According to sources and Aronie, someone in City Hall tried to get Vappie reinstated on Dec. 22, 2022. The PIB didn’t interview Vappie’s co-workers Monlyn and Ellis until six days later, on Dec. 28, 2022. Vappie’s first interview was on Jan. 9, 2023.
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