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INVESTIGATIVE UNIT: Taxpayers foot the bill for EBR COA employees' cruise

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BATON ROUGE- The WBRZ Investigative Unit found taxpayers foot the bill for an annual trip for four employees at the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging to go on an all-expenses-paid cruise last year. The employees who were called chaperones did not use vacation time during the trip.

The Carnival Dream set sail out of New Orleans and made stops in Cozumel, Mexico and Belize. During that cruise, that left in February of 2016 and returned the first week of March, the following employees were selected to go: Vincent James, Charlotte Turner, Johnathan McGee and Patrice Bryant. It's unclear how many seniors from the Council on Aging went, but the COA said it did not pay for their cruises.

Shannon Battiste is an attorney in town and recently says he donated $1,500 to the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging. He says he would like a refund if the money he donated didn't go to seniors.

"Some of it seems to be self-serving especially since the COA has such limited funds," Battiste said. "I understand they just had a great tax passed, those funds could have been converted to something other than a cruise for employees."

Board Member C. Denise Marcelle, who is new, said it cost about $2,600 for four employees to go. She said this story is "not news worthy" because she says trips occur every year, and not just at the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging. Marcelle said the four employees who went were ATC, also known as Authorized Trip Coordinators, trained for minor medical problems. According to Marcelle, the ATC's had to look after seniors who got sea sick.

Through a public records request sent by the WBRZ Investigative Unit, we obtained multiple checks and invoices that totaled to about $4,000 for the cruise. The documents obtained show the EBR COA wrote the checks for the cruise to Barb's Leisure Travel and Tours. An organization with that name is not registered to do business in the state.

"People who don't have money don't typically take luxury vacations," Battiste said. "If you have a light bill to pay, you aren't going to take a cruise."

Following the public records request that showed the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging spent thousands of dollars for non-essential trips, the Council on Aging halted all trips, aside from day trips, until definitive policies and procedures can be put in place.

Earlier this year. The Investigative Unit showed the organization sent multiple employees to Chicago and spent $12,000. It happened as 5,000 seniors sat on a waiting list for services. Donors like Battiste say he doesn't doubt the services that the Council on Aging provides, but he has serious questions about how his hard earned money was spent.

"It's kind of hard to justify that you are working 40 hours for the Council on Aging when you're in Belize," Battiste said. "I think some leave time should have been used."

As the Investigative Unit was at the Council on Aging Wednesday, embattled Director Tasha Clark Amar walked out. However, she wouldn't come to the camera to answer questions about the trip or her actions. Clark Amar came under fire this year after the Investigative Unit showed you she named herself as the overseer of her client's will, and almost took $120,000 from Helen Plummer's estate. Clark Amar is now suing the Plummer family for defamation for exposing the story.

"If the current leadership at the COA allowed all of this to happen, then there probably should be a change in leadership," Battiste said.

Council on Aging Attorney Murphy Foster told the WBRZ Investigative Unit the Governor's Office of Elderly Affairs is investigating the cruise that was taken. We have learned the GOEA has instructed all Council on Agings across the state never to go on a cruise.

We've also learned a big training session will be held in July for COA directors about travel.


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