The Capital Area Legal Services Corp.’s loss of a $1.6 million annual federal grant will likely mark the end of the 53-year-old Baton Rouge-based nonprofit organization, its board chairman said.
But low-income residents in a dozen parishes who rely on the group for free civil legal services should experience “only minimal interruption’’ in those services, added Preston Castille, who joined the CALSC board in January and was elected chairman a month ago.
The Washington, D.C.-based Legal Services Corp. notified CALSC in early June that the $1.6 million grant it previously held had been awarded to the New Orleans area-based Southeast Louisiana Legal Services Corp.
SLLS, which currently serves 10 parishes, now will serve 22 parishes with the addition of the 12 in CALSC’s area.
“CALSC and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services are working to ensure a smooth transition and continuity in the delivery of civil legal assistance to low-income persons in Louisiana,’’ Legal Services Corp. spokesman Steve Barr said last week.
“Our staff in Washington is in contact with both programs and is monitoring the transition,’’ Barr added, noting that the recently awarded LSC grant won’t expire until the end of 2013.
SLLS co-director Mark Moreau said the group already is advertising for positions in the Baton Rouge area and is eager to begin providing the highest quality of civil legal services that it can.
“It is expected there will be some bumps in the road,’’ Moreau said, adding that the group hopes to begin work by July 1 in the Baton Rouge area even though it won’t be fully funded by LSC until December or January.
CALSC had requested that its grant be renewed after it expired in December, but Barr said the request was denied after LSC officials met with the CALSC board to discuss an audit report by the LSC Office of Inspector General.
That report, released in September, questioned nearly $320,000 in CALSC spending, including more than $11,400 for then-CALSC executive director James Wayne Sr.’s meals at the private Camelot Club and restaurants in the city, and $78,000 for his leased Toyota Camry and fuel.
The CALSC board voted in November to end the group’s Camelot Club membership in Wayne’s name, and to have him return the Camry that the agency leases for $500 a month.
Wayne, who served as executive director for 21 years, was put on paid administrative leave in October and later fired.
Wayne insisted Friday that CALSC’s loss of the LSC grant is not his fault.
“No. None whatsoever. I didn’t do anything wrong,’’ he said.
“I wish I had been there. I could have saved it,’’ Wayne added.
Wayne sued the CALSC board in February after his Jan. 11 termination, claiming it was illegal because the vote was taken in executive session. The board fired him again March 31, and Wayne sued again in April on grounds that some board members voted by phone.
That suit is pending in Baton Rouge state court.
Wayne’s attorney, Wade Shows, said CALSC’s loss of the LSC grant is “sad for the Baton Rouge-area legal community and the people they help.’’
Wayne said SLLS is a “fine organization.’’
“They’ll do a fine job,’’ he said. “My biggest concern is that the rural community will not be adequately served.’’
Wayne has said in the past he believes LSC officials have held a grudge against him since 1994 when the national nonprofit organization questioned nearly $750,000 of his expenditures.
All of those expenditures were proved legitimate, Wayne said. LSC insisted on his return of $600 to settle the matter, he said.
“They (LSC) wanted Capital Area gone, and they got Capital Area gone,’’ Wayne said Friday.
Barr said Southeast Louisiana Legal Services will use existing CALSC offices in Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville and Houma. SLLS already has offices in New Orleans, Covington, Hammond and Marrero, said Moreau.
SLLS expects to hire 17 staff attorneys, including 10 for the Baton Rouge office, Moreau said. Support staff also will be hired, he said.
SLLS already has received resumes from some CALSC workers, Moreau said.
CALSC’s service area includes Ascension, Assumption, East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, West Feliciana, Iberville, Lafourche, Pointe Coupee, St. James, St. John and Terrebonne parishes.
SLLS, which will absorb those parishes, already serves Jefferson, Livingston, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes.
“We (the CALSC board) think it (SLLS) is a fine, well-deserved organization and will assist it in any way we can to continue our long history of providing free legal services to the poor in our community,’’ Castille said, while acknowledging that CALSC is disappointed it did not win the LSC grant competition.
“We expect that Southeast will seamlessly continue the many positive initiatives recently started by CALSC as well. Our organizations have already begun the transition process and the poor should see only minimal interruption in free legal services,” he added.
Castille called the loss of the LSC grant, which accounted for 60 percent of the group’s funding, a “big blow.’’
“The organization probably will cease to provide services,’’ he conceded.
Castille said what is happening to CALSC is unfortunate but stressed that the board supports whatever is in the best interest of those to be served.
“This is about helping the community,’’ he said. “We’re all volunteers.’’
Castille said Wayne provided many years of service to CALSC, and he has a lot of respect for him.
LSC also helps fund the Acadiana Legal Service Corp. in Lafayette and Legal Services of North Louisiana Inc. in Shreveport.
Barr said LSC provides grants to 136 nonprofit organizations nationwide.