Report: EBR COA used public funds to campaign for tax increase
BATON ROUGE – The East Baton Rouge Council on Aging used public resources, including money, staff time and nonprofit postage permit to support a tax proposition in 2016, according to a state audit released Monday.
According to Louisiana’s Legislative Auditor, the COA management ran Support our Seniors, a political action committee, from February to December 2016. The PAC’s goal: to push for voter support of a tax to increase the council’s funding.
Auditors report that the EBR COA donated $24,830 from ad sales and sponsorships and used $6,523 in public money to pay for SOS’s expenses. The majority of those expenses were paid on the council’s credit card and reimbursed after the election.
Auditors identified another $9,132 in expenses apparently paid on SOS's behalf which was not reimbursed.
“Both the Louisiana Constitution and state law prohibit the use of public funds to encourage citizens to vote for or against a candidate or proposition,” Daryl G. Purpera said. “Federal treasury regulations also prohibit tax-exempt organizations from participating in political activities.”
Purpera added that COA’s donation of ad sponsorship revenue and payment of SOS’s expenses could be considered a donation of public funds and a violation of state law.
Between July and October 2016, COA management used its U.S. Postal Service nonprofit postage permit to send 34,369 pieces of SOS’s mail. As a result, SOS received a discount of $3,691 on postage.
U.S. Postal Service regulations say political organizations “do not qualify for the nonprofit standard mail prices, even if organized on a nonprofit basis.”
The report also notes that EBR COA failed to maintain adequate documentation for credit card purchases. Between December 2015 and November 2016, employees used the council’s credit card 281 times totaling $30,993 in charges.
Auditors could not find adequate support for 57 of those charges, which totaled $3,612.
Auditors also revealed that in October 2016, EBR COA received $12,585 in federal reimbursement for disaster-related overtime for employees who may have been ineligible. The council could be required to repay the money if FEMA determines those reimbursements were improper.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore said that his office will review the audit for any "potential criminal charges." Moore's full statement is below:
"We have received the audit from the Legislative Auditor on the Council on Aging. We have previously met with them to discuss their preliminary findings. We will review the completed report and the responses from the COA as well as any other information that is available or presented to us. The report is comprehensive and will take some time to thoroughly review. Our review is limited to any potential criminal charges and not to any potential non-criminal campaign or ethics related charges.
My office is also in communication with the US Attorney, State Inspector General and Attorney General’s office. We will discuss this matter with each of these offices as well."
State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle and the other EBR COA members announced a press conference Monday morning to discuss the Legislative Auditor’s report. Attorney Murphy Foster, III, stated that the audit pointed out the agency's mistakes.
"We made mistakes. They pointed out our mistakes correctly," Foster said.
Foster also stated that the auditor's report has "enable the Council on Aging to understand the needed changes and how the board and staff can ensure full compliance in the future."
Foster added that since the audior's report, the Council on Aging "is a better agency" and "will be a better agency moving forward."
Marcelle stated that policies have been within the agency and members are "doing everything the auditors asked us to do." She said that moving forward the agency will continue its efforts in maintaining "transparency."
Marcelle noted that the Legislative Auditor does several audits, however she has "not seen this much press" those in comparison to the audit on the Council on Aging. She also noted that it "amazes" her that many people are involved in the agency that were not once before.
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