The East Baton Rouge Parish Council on Aging may have violated state and federal laws in four different ways during the campaign for a dedicated tax in 2016, an investigative audit released Monday concludes, laying out how the agency devoted public money and resources to convince voters to agree to the tax.
A family that spoke out against Council on Aging Executive Director Tasha Clark Amar has now been silenced by a temporary restraining order th…
The investigation's timing corresponded with a barrage of calls for oversight and questions about the Council on Aging's management, some spurred by the campaign and others arising from Executive Director Tasha Clark Amar's involvement in a former Council on Aging client's estate. One week ago, Council on Aging board members agreed to an employee conflict of interest policy and changed both the agency's bylaws and financial procedures in an attempt to respond to the criticism.
But the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's investigative report has piled on yet another layer of questions for the embattled agency. The Council on Aging made at least six major mistakes over the past several months as employees routinely mixed working for the nonprofit agency with campaigning for the Support Our Seniors political action committee, the audit found.
Some of those mistakes may have broke state laws. The Louisiana Constitution and state law forbid the use of any public money to compel people to vote for any proposition or candidate. Furthermore, federal laws forbid nonprofit organizations, including the Council on Aging, from dabbling in political activities.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said Monday that his office received the audit and would review the findings, as is their general policy. Moore said the scope of his review is limited to criminal charges, but he planned to discuss the findings with the State Inspector General and Attorney General's office.
An attorney representing the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging acknowledged Wednesday that a…
The council provides services to elderly people in Baton Rouge, including meals delivered to their homes, counseling, legal services and utility assistance.
The Support Our Seniors political action committee that campaigned for the Council on Aging's tax should have been an entirely separate entity from the Council on Aging. But the audit found that it was Council on Aging employees who operated the political action committee during the same hours they were on the clock for their work at the nonprofit.
Attorney Murphy Foster, representing the Council on Aging, responded to the audit's findings by acknowledging many of the mistakes, but also by saying the employees did not intentionally thwart state and federal laws. He also called some of the audit's findings "misleading" as he defended the Council on Aging during a news conference Monday at their headquarters on Florida Boulevard, where seniors crowded into the room.
"At the center of any misstep made by the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging was the leadership's desire to see the agency become consistently and adequately funded through a regular source of funds," Foster wrote in a lengthy management letter. "That is what the millage was all about. This is all that the Support Our Seniors political action committee was all about. Having been put on notice through the investigation of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging is certain that similar mistakes will be carefully avoided."
Foster also said the Council on Aging has also recently adopted new policies to address the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's nine recommendations in the audit. One of those changes was the conflict of interest policy, which followed a complaint from the family of a deceased elderly client about Amar being appointed as a paid trustee of the woman's estate.
Amar has since removed herself from the estate, but recently filed a defamation lawsuit against two members of the family who spoke out against her role. Asked afterward whether it was in violation of the policy for Amar to file that lawsuit, Council on Aging board member C. Denise Marcelle, who is also a state representative, said the suit was purely Amar's "personal business" and that it had "nothing to do" with the Council on Aging.
Despite Foster's assertion that the Council on Aging employees did not know the ins and outs of political campaigns, the auditor's report shows an Attorney General opinion from April 2016 — months before the campaign ramped up — specifically asking whether the director, Amar, could campaign for the tax. The AG's letter spells out that the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging could not use public resources to lobby for the tax measure, nor could employees use state payroll time to campaign for the tax.
The East Baton Rouge Council on Aging board adopted a conflict-of-interest policy for employ…
The audit, however, shows that Council on Aging employees did both.
Among those who handled the Support Our Seniors operations included Amar, Chief Financial Officer Eva Pratt, Director of Development Corey Williams, Director of Information and Assistance Trudy Bihm and Executive Assistant O’Jayadrian Williams. Council on Aging employees handled the political action committee's finances and general operations, according to the audit.
At least 33 Council on Aging employees took leave on Election Day to campaign for the political action committee, and the PAC paid most of them for canvassing. Foster said it was OK for the employees to take part in political activities during non-work hours.
Not only did Council on Aging employees work for the PAC, but the Council on Aging also donated $24,830 to Support Our Seniors. The Council on Aging raised the money through sponsoring a candidate forum and advertisements in a quarterly magazine, soliciting donations from candidates running for office.
The Council on Aging also used $6,523 in public funds — as the agency receives tax money from the city-parish's general fund — to pay for Support Our Seniors expenses. While that money was reimbursed, auditors found $9,132 in expenses the Council on Aging paid for the PAC that weren't reimbursed. The money went toward purchasing "Support Our Seniors" t-shirts, producing a documentary encouraging people to vote for the tax and purchasing signs advocating for the tax.
The Advocate reported in October 2016 that the Council on Aging took advantage of its nonprofit postage when sending out Support Our Seniors mailers, which is also a violation of the U.S. Postal Service manual. The audit reveals that the Council on Aging used nonprofit postage discounts other times as well. The Council on Aging received a $3,691 discount for at least three different mailers that it sent using its nonprofit postage.
The Council on Aging paid back some of the money after The Advocate's reporting of it, but auditors found that the agency still owes $2,239 to the U.S. Postal Service. Foster said the Council on Aging made 'numerous attempts' to fix the error, but nobody ever notified them to tell them they owed additional money.
A recent mailer in support of a dedicated tax for the East Baton Rouge Parish Council on Agi…
Auditors found two other major mistakes that did not rise to the level of possible violations of the law. One was inadequate documentation of credit card charges for nearly a year between late 2015 and late 2016. No detailed receipts were available for 12 percent of $30,993 spent on credit cards, the audit said.
In addition, auditors questioned whether Council on Aging employees should have received $12,585 in FEMA reimbursements for disaster-related overtime during the August floods because not all employees were eligible to receive it. Exempt employees earning more than $40,000 annually should not have received the overtime reimbursements, according the auditors.
Among the employees who received the overtime pay were Amar, who received an additional $3,869; Chief Operating Officer Shontell LeBeouf, who received $3,202; Bihm, who received $2,215 and three others.
The auditors reported that it was not until after the August floods of 2016 that the Council on Aging created a policy to allow exempt employees, regardless of their salaries, to receive overtime money for work done beyond their regularly scheduled workday.
"Therefore, this undated policy, adopted on September 22, 2016, should not have been used as a basis for requesting reimbursement from FEMA because it was not in effect before the disaster," reads the audit. "However, Ms. Clark-Amar submitted this second policy to FEMA on October 3, 2016, as part of the Council’s Employee Handbook dated effective March 12, 2014, and as part of the Council’s Emergency Preparedness Plan dated July 2016. In addition, it appears that Ms. Pratt requested the policy’s author to not list the effective date of the policy."
Foster said the auditors' assessment of the FEMA overtime discrepancy was "inaccurate" and he asked that it be deleted from the auditor's investigation. He maintained Monday that the FEMA overtime pay claim was initiated by FEMA, not by the Council on Aging itself.
Marcelle also defended the Council on Aging at Monday's news conference, complaining that the agency's problems have received outsized news coverage. She said the media have not been as aggressive covering the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court's office, which has also been the subject of an auditor report. A 2015 article in The Advocate prompted the investigation from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor into spending at the clerk's office.