John Kennedy

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

J. Scott Applewhite

U.S. Sen. John Kennedy has asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether city-parish officials mismanaged federal taxpayer dollars dedicated to the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program — a once popular anti-gang initiative that has drawn mounting criticism in recent months. 

Kennedy, R-Madisonville, sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week asking federal authorities "to conduct a thorough audit and assessment" to determine whether local officials flouted compliance standards in their administration of the more than $3 million grant. The city-parish left more than $1 million of the money on the table, raising questions about a program that had been widely praised by law enforcement officials for its disruption of retaliatory gang shootings and the reams of data it generated concerning local crime trends. 

"I just want to know what happened to the American taxpayers' money," Kennedy said in a telephone interview Friday. "I'm not accusing the mayor-president of anything. I'm just saying it quacks like a duck. I want to know if it's a duck. It sure looks bad."

Federal authorities recently denied a request by Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's administration to extend the funding for the initiative for another year, citing "substantial deficiencies" with the administration of the grant, including missed program goals and shoddy record-keeping.

The feds also noted that the program, launched in 2012, already had been extended twice, and that a further extension would have to be "justified by circumstances beyond the control" of city-parish officials under DOJ policy.

In asking for another extension, the Broome administration pointed to the devastating floods of 2016 and the uprising that followed the fatal police-involved shooting of Alton Sterling.

"A denial of this extension will diminish the lasting impact of BRAVE in providing an intervention approach aimed at diverting youth from a violent criminal pathway," a former city-parish official wrote in a letter to the Department of Justice earlier this year.  

BRAVE had been credited with sharply reducing bloodshed in the city's most violent neighborhoods, most notably the 70805 ZIP code. That area, bordered by Airline Highway to the north and east, Choctaw Drive to the south and the Mississippi River to the west, has seen a resurgence of violence this year, though killings remain below levels seen before BRAVE was launched. 

Once vaunted for its focus on offering juveniles an alternative to a life of street crime, BRAVE has fallen into ill repute this summer, with city-parish officials blaming their predecessors in office for missed reporting deadlines and other lapses that prompted federal authorities to freeze the program's funding at one point. Meanwhile, a number of critics, including Kennedy, have questioned a series of contracts Broome approved in the final months of the grant, which expires this month. 

In his letter to Sessions, Kennedy cited one contract for nearly $10,000 that had been awarded to activist Arthur "Silky Slim" Reed, a member of Broome's transition team who sparked outrage at a Metro Council meeting in July when he claimed that "justice came when Gavin Long came" — referring to the man who ambushed and killed three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers in 2016.

Kennedy also questioned the number of youths who benefited from BRAVE, another aspect of the program that concerned federal authorities. 

In an interview Friday, Kennedy said he had not received "diddly-squat" from Broome's office, "except what she sent out the press, which didn't have much meat on the bone."

"She answered about 20 percent of my inquiries and then pretended that it just went away," Kennedy told The Advocate. "It's not going to go away. I want to know what happened to the money." 

Broome issued a statement Friday saying her administration "is and always has been committed to transparency and accountability," citing an internal audit her office recently completed into BRAVE spending.

"While Sen. Kennedy certainly has his own reason for seeking a DOJ investigation, I hope his pursuits include the entire life of the BRAVE program," the mayor-president said. "I invite the senator to sit down with me immediately in Baton Rouge to discuss the issue."  

Kennedy's letter comes as the state Legislative Auditor's Office also has begun an expansive investigation into BRAVE spending, an inquiry that appears to encompass the entire life of the program and not just the actions taken by the Broome administration. One person interview by the auditors said the office had asked for "everything," including hundreds of documents. 

Kennedy said he would ask Sessions to allocate federal taxpayer dollars elsewhere in Louisiana if city-parish officials do not demonstrate that they are committed to combating violent crime in the Capital City.

"This is a lot of money," he added. "And if they're going to give it to hogs who have all four feet and their snout in the trough, then I'm not going to support that." 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.