BRAVE event puts supplies, resources in hands of Baton Rouge youths heading back to school _lowres

Advocate staff photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — BRAVE offers free backpacks filled with school supplies for kids Saturday, August 8, 2015 during the BRAVE CommUNITY “Back to School Extravaganza”.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President's Office wants to pay LSU an additional $125,000 for its crime research work for the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program, a supplemental grant that was pushed to the side earlier this year as controversy swirled around the once-heralded anti-gang initiative.

After years working on BRAVE, university officials said they performed additional research work between 2016 and 2017, expecting the city-parish to eventually pay up. But the grant was held up when Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's administration in February told the parish Metro Council that officials wanted to look more deeply at the proposal before moving forward.

Months later, the program was thrust under a spotlight when the federal government denied a request by Broome's staff to allow them to use almost $1 million in unspent money in 2018. The fact that so much money was left over in the grant led to questions about how the money was spent, largely under previous Mayor-President Kip Holden's administration. Broome took office in January.

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Emails between the city-parish and U.S. Department of Justice showed the city-parish had a habit of sloppy record-keeping and late progress report submissions to the federal government. BRAVE also never served as many youth as it was meant to; the original goal was 150, but only 65 youths were part of the program.

This past summer, Broome froze all BRAVE contracts when other questions arose about how her administration had spent some money. The questions about the program started boiling over when Broome canceled a $9,800 contract approved for community activist Arthur "Silky Slim" Reed, who said at a Metro Council meeting in July that "justice came" to Baton Rouge when a gunman who killed three local law enforcement officers arrived in the city in July 2016.

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LSU remained unpaid amid the questions, calls for oversight and audits that began into the program over the summer. At least one audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office has yet to be released publicly.

LSU and the city-parish drew up an agreement in September 2016 for the university to receive an additional $125,000 for its research identifying and tracking young people who were in gangs or at risk of joining them and committing crimes in Baton Rouge. The money was supposed to cover LSU's work between September 2016 and September 2017, but the 2016 agreement remained unsigned by Holden, LSU research professor Cecile Guin said.

Guin said the LSU staff kept working in good faith as Broome took office at the beginning of 2017 and as more months ticked by without them being reimbursed.

"To us, it wasn't if they were going to pay, it was when they were going to pay," Guin said Thursday.

LSU researchers tracked which youths were in gangs or most likely to join them, and when groups or gangs were going "inactive" as BRAVE continued. For example, LSU compared whether the same three names showed up together in both narcotics and violent crime reports, which could indicate that the three people were committing crimes as part of a group or gang.

They also tracked changes in violent crime activity; homicide trends; and short-term and long-term effects of call-ins where officials encouraged young people to walk away from criminal activity.

But Broome's former assistant chief administrative officer, James Gilmore, said over the summer that LSU was not going to receive the $125,000 unless the Justice Department extended the grant through 2018. Gilmore also said there wasn't enough money left in the city-parish's specific grant account for LSU, which had a $36,088 balance.

LSU's record-keeping shows, though, that researchers were banking on the additional $125,000 before talk of extending the grant into 2018 even began. Most of the money, nearly $87,000, was meant to cover salaries, wages and fringe benefits for researchers working on BRAVE during late 2016 and most of 2017. LSU also budgeted money for tuition remission for graduate assistants who worked on the program, along with travel and supply expenses.

Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel said Thursday that the city-parish wants to ensure the university is reimbursed for research LSU performed "in good faith." Though the grant expired in September, Gissel said the city-parish has until the end of the year to pay out LSU with remaining federal money. And though LSU's specific grant account had less than the $125,000 in it, Gissel said the administration's request to the Metro Council is to move leftover money from other BRAVE accounts to LSU.

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"I'm really glad it's getting resolved and it sounds like the mayor's office is finally getting organized about what they need to do it," Guin said, referencing Gissel's recent appointment to the chief administrative officer role. "It sounds like they have the right people in place now to take care of these problems."

LSU already has received more than $650,000 for its research work for BRAVE during the duration of the grant going back to 2012.

For most of its duration, the program was a darling of Baton Rouge's local leaders until questions arose this year about the program's record-keeping, contracts and long-term efficacy. The $1.5 million grant started in 2012 with its anti-gang focus in the 70805 ZIP code, and its initial success led to a $1.5 million grant expansion to include the 70802 ZIP code as well.

Authorities credited BRAVE in its early years with cutting gang-related killings across Baton Rouge. The homicide total dropped from 84 to 63 within the program's first two years, while robberies and aggravated assaults also tumbled.

Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.​