Kenneth Ferdinand, the former executive director of the French Market Corp., may have gotten spendy with the city agency’s credit cards, but none of it amounted to theft, a judge ruled late Friday. Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Arthur Hunter acquitted Ferdinand of a theft charge after a two-day trial that spanned more than a month.
Ferdinand had been accused of making more than $10,000 in improper purchases over his three years at the helm of the agency that oversees the famed, 220-year-old market that runs along North Peters Street in the French Quarter.
Most of the disputed charges were for meals, gas and bicycle repairs, and Ferdinand attempted to repay $5,000 of it in a failed attempt to salvage his job.
The repayment amounted to an admission of guilt, prosecutor David Pipes argued.
All told, Ferdinand misused the cards 136 times “as his own personal piggy bank,” Pipes said.
But in a two-page written verdict, Hunter said District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office had failed to prove that Ferdinand stole anything. There was no evidence, Hunter found, that any of the charges were for Ferdinand’s personal use.
“In the present case, simply ‘saying’ or ‘assuming’ the defendant ‘misused’ a FMC credit card is wholly insufficient to prove criminal conduct,” he wrote.
Hunter also rejected a lesser charge of unauthorized use of a movable, and Ferdinand, who was out on bail, walked free.
Cannizzaro’s office reacted harshly to the verdict.
“District Attorney Cannizzaro has fought hard to eliminate corruption, and unfortunately Arthur Hunter thwarted our efforts today,” said Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for the office.
“His press release – I mean verdict – is extremely confusing,” Bowman added. “The state presented evidence that when he was confronted by these charges, he’d pay the money back. The judge makes no reference to (Ferdinand’s) statements to that effect.”
According to testimony, Ferdinand actually overstated by $6,000 the amount he claimed was his responsibility.
Ferdinand declined to talk about the case after the verdict. His attorney, James Gray, called the prosecution “outrageous.”
“No one from the French Market Corporation ever said, ‘This amounted to theft,’” Gray said. “They took his attempt to resolve a simple dispute as an admission of guilt without even looking at the (credit card) charges.”
The resumption of a trial that began Aug. 17 was delayed until Friday afternoon while Gray was receiving Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s endorsement in the race for the City Council District E seat.
In court, Gray challenged the idea that anyone at the French Market Corporation claimed Ferdinand stole anything. Ferdinand resigned in summer, 2010 at the request of the board, after a few board members complained over his management style and the credit card charges.
The disputed purchases were brought to the full board’s attention by then-President Charles Napoli and then-board member Gwen Carter.
Trustees criticized him for a disorganized management style and some deals he had cut without the board’s approval, including one allowing the National Football League to use French Market parking lots at a reduced rate.
Ferdinand served as executive director for three years. According to Pipes, the credit card charges became more frequent over time, in some cases including as many as four lunches in a day.
Ferdinand was charged last year, in a rare foray by Cannizzaro’s office into alleged public corruption. The theft charge came days after New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux reported myriad troubles in the financial oversight of the agency.
Along with the market, the public corporation also manages the city-owned Upper Pontalba apartments and storefronts on Jackson Square.
The corporation, which has one shareholder — the mayor — runs on a $25 million budget, according to board member Russell Carll.
“Keeping records was not his forte,” Carll said of Ferdinand. “The only thing he did wrong was the stupid thing of paying the $5,000.”
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