Mayor LaToya Cantrell. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The City of New Orleans allowed the Monumental Task Committee, a group that has defended confederate monuments for years, to arrange for a private appraisal of the John McDonogh statue that was torn down and thrown in the Mississippi river this summer, according to emails obtained by The Lens

According to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office,  the statues’ appraised value of $50,000 could potentially elevate the charges against one of the two people arrested in connection with the demonstration — Caleb Wassell — upping his potential maximum sentence to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine, or both. 

“I’ve been practicing criminal law in Orleans Parish for about a decade and it’s the first time I’ve heard of something like this,” Wassell’s attorney, Sarah Chervinsky, told The Lens. “We are deeply disappointed that this district attorney would choose to collaborate in prosecuting this case with the Monumental Task Committee, which has been the most outspoken advocate in favor of maintaining white supremacist monuments in our city. The irregular way this case has been handled creates serious doubt about the evidence against Caleb.”

The Monumental Task Committee, or MTC, sent the appraisal to the District Attorney’s office this week, according to spokesman Ken Daley. He added, however, that the office does not currently anticipate a change to Wassell’s charges. 

The emails obtained by The Lens also indicate that the previously unidentified people who fished the monument out of the water and eventually gave it back to the city were MTC members. Chervinsky said it is highly irregular for a party that was involved in a case to play a role in the investigation and prosecution of a crime.

The MTC was one of the leading opponents to the city’s decision to take down four confederate monuments in 2015, going so far as to sue the city to block the city from carrying out the decision.  Mayor LaToya Cantrell has been criticized for quietly working with MTC and other confederate monument supporters on the potential relocation of confederate statues. 

Neither Cantrel’s office nor the MTC responded to requests for comment.

The bust of McDonogh, a slave owner and businessman who dedicated large sums to funding schools in Baltimore and New Orleans, had sat in Duncan Plaza from 1958 until June 13 of this year, when a group of demonstrators dislodged the bust and threw it in the Mississippi River.

Two people were arrested in connection with the statue’s removal. They were both originally booked on a number of charges, including inciting a felony and inciting a riot. Most of those were dropped. 

Micheala Davis was ultimately charged with marijuana possession and resisting arrest, while Wassell was charged with simple criminal damage to property valued between $1,000 and $50,000.  

District Attorney spokesman Ken Daley said that his office filed the charge on August 18 based on the NOPD’s original estimate of the statue’s value between $5,000 and $10,000.

“A new appraisal was submitted to our office Monday Aug. 24 through the Monumental Task Committee,” Daley said in an emailed statement. “This appraisal was commissioned from Matthew Clayton Brown Fine Art Appraisers, and it this week assigned a value of $50,000 to the McDonough bust.”

Daley said that prosecutors will now have the option of keeping the current charge or potentially elevating the charge based on the new appraisal.

The law against simple destruction of property has three levels of severity. Wassell is currently being charged under the middle traunch — over $1,000 “but less than fifty thousand dollars.” That carries the potential sentence of up to two years in prison and up to a $1,000 fine or both.

The new appraisal could bump the charges up to the next level, “where the damage amounts to fifty thousand dollars or more,” according to Daley. That carries the potential charge of up to 10 years in prison or up to a $10,000 fine or both. But again, he said that he doesn’t anticipate a change to Wassell’s charges. 

“He will absolutely plead not guilty to whatever they charge him with,” Chervinsky said.

Daley said that Chervinsky’s claim that the DA’s office collaborated with the MTC was a “baseless characterization.”

“The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office neither asked for the appraisal commissioned by the MTC, nor is bound in any way whatsoever by its unsolicited delivery to our doorstep. Ms. Chervinsky is well aware that her client was charged a week before this appraisal was sent to our office, and that his pending charge remains unchanged.”

‘Please arrange this visit at your convenience’

Two days after the statue was put in the river, it was fished out of the water by a group of unknown men and was eventually returned to the city “after negotiations,” according to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate

The city has not publicly acknowledged who retrieved and returned the statue, but emails obtained by The Lens indicate that the Monumental Task Committee played a central role. On June 29, an MTC board member Kathleen Frater emailed Colin Arnold, the director of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. 

“I am a Board member of the Monumental Task Committee, Inc. (MTC), the organization which returned the McDonough bust to the City of New Orleans,” Frater’s email said. “I believe that you spoke with our President, Pierre McGraw, to have the bust picked up & returned to the city. We have been in touch with the NOPD in efforts to get an accurate value for the bust.” 

Frater said that the group wanted to pay for a private art appraiser to set a value for the sculpture. But to do that, the city would have to arrange for the appraiser to come and view the sculpture, which is now in the city’s possession but out of public view. 

“Our intention is to provide accurate, professional information to Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the NOPD, & the Dept of Property Management,” her email said.

Arnold forwarded the email to Kevin Williams, logistics chief of the homeland security office.

“Please arrange this visit at your convenience,” Arnold said. “The bust should be pulled out from the other items so the appraiser can look it over.”

Chervinsky said that it was odd that MTC was allowed to participate in the investigation and prosecution over the statue, given that it became directly involved when its members went and retrieved it. (Daley again disagreed with that characterization, saying that

Chervinsky said that it was odd that MTC was allowed to participate in the investigation and prosecution over the statue, given that it became directly involved when its members went and retrieved it. (Daley again disagreed with that characterization, saying that

Chervinsky said that it was odd that MTC was allowed to participate in the investigation and prosecution over the statue, given that it became directly involved when its members went and retrieved it. (Daley again disagreed with that characterization, saying that

Chervinsky said that it was odd that MTC was allowed to participate in the investigation and prosecution over the statue, given that it became directly involved when its members went and retrieved it. (Daley again disagreed with Chervinsky’s characterization, saying that the DA’s office was simply presented with evidence from MTC after the office had already filed charges.)

And she noted that the MTC has a clear agenda for impacting the case. 

A recent public statement from MTC president Pierre McGraw, which explicitly mentions the vandalization of the McDonogh bust by “out of state anarchists,” called on the city to prosecute those responsible for “desecration acts.”

“The city of New Orleans must take an active stand to begin protecting monuments from vandals intent on destroying works of art to satisfy their insatiable desire for ‘justice,’” the statement said. “We have called upon city officials to take an active role in protecting monuments and prosecuting those responsible for desecration acts.”

‘The city is taking too long’

The McDonogh bust in Duncan Plaza was one of two statues of McDonogh that have been vandalized since the onset of the national protests against racism and police violence that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Demonstrators around the country and world have been tearing down statues dedicated to confederate figures and white supremacists. 

Many celebrated the vandalism as a long overdue step towards racial justice that the city government refused to do itself. That includes Take ‘Em Down NOLA, the local group that led the grassroots effort to remove four confederate monuments, including a statue of Robert E. Lee, in 2017. 

Take ‘Em Down has previously advocated for the removal of the McDonogh statues from the city’s public spaces. Their objection to McDonogh’s statue was not only because he owned slaves in the 19th century. They were also spurred by McDonogh Day celebrations in the 20th century. 

Every year on May 7, according to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, students from the city’s segregated education system would pay homage to McDonogh by placing flowers in front of his statue in Lafayette Square (which was also vandalized this summer). Black students were forced to wait until the white students finished, according to the paper. In 1954, black leaders staged a boycott of the celebration — an early demonstration in what would evolve into the civil rights movement. 

“The city is taking too long to do what’s right,” a statement on Take ‘Em Down NOLA’s website said. “The people are to be celebrated!!! So rather than pass out honor awards, the police arrested two people for alleged involvement in removing a monument the masses have declared physiologically terrorizing.”

Others in the city, including Cantrell, we’re more concerned with the unlawful destruction of city property. 

“The City of New Orleans rejects vandalism and destruction of City property,” Cantrell tweeted in response to the demonstration. “It is unlawful.”

*Correction: As originally published, this article misidentified Kevin Williams as an NOPD detective. That is a different Kevin Williams.

This article has been updated with a statement from the District Attorney’s office.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...