Officials at a New Orleans-based nonprofit that was supposed to help provide affordable housing to people with disabilities spent more than $130,000 of the group’s funds on personal expenses over the course of three years, including tens of thousands of dollars for Saints, Hornets and Pelicans tickets, trips to Las Vegas, Caribbean cruises and tuition for one staffer’s son to attend college in Mississippi, according to the state Legislative Auditor’s Office.
The audit of Alternatives Living, released Monday, said that spending plus another $250,000 in undocumented expenses for meals, fuel and other charges might violate state and federal laws.
Three senior officials with the organization — Melanie Duplechain, Ricky Roberson and his wife, Ada Craige-Roberson — racked up the bills, according to the audit.
Duplechain, the organization’s CEO, said in a response to the report that policies are being put in place to address the issues and to allow staff members to reimburse the money in response to this audit and a previous one by the nonprofit’s own auditors.
Alternatives Living has received grants from the state to provide affordable housing for residents with “severe and complex disabilities, allowing them to live successfully in the community,” according to the audit.
About $46,600 of the nonprofit’s funds went toward season tickets for New Orleans’ professional sports teams, and another $1,500 paid for officials to attend other entertainment events, such as Cirque du Soleil, Broadway Across America and Legends of Hip Hop, according to the legislative auditor’s report, which covers the years 2010 through 2013.
Those tickets were personal expenses, Craige-Roberson told auditors, and the tickets were in her name or her husband’s. While Roberson said about half the tickets went to Alternatives Living staff or their clients, the rest were used by the family, he told auditors.
Another $49,000 was spent to lease a Mercedes-Benz for Duplechain and later, when that lease was up, buy her a used Mercedes-Benz.
The three officials also used the nonprofit’s credit cards for about $9,000 for three cruises and a trip to Las Vegas, including trips that included Roberson and Craige-Roberson’s two children, according to the audit. Money was spent on “tips, drinks, phone and Internet charges,” according to the audit, which the couple justified by saying they worked while on the trips.
Another $7,300 went to pay tuition at Alcorn State University for the Robersons’ son, through a tuition reimbursement program offered by the nonprofit. However, the son was never employed by the organization, which is one of the requirements for getting reimbursement.
The nonprofit also had $250,000 in expenses that were not documented, including about $150,000 in checks that were simply made out to “Cash.” An additional $31,000 in purchases were made at gas stations without any documentation, and $31,000 was spent at restaurants without paperwork showing whether those meals were for work-related purposes, according to the audit.
Alternatives Living also spent $29,000 on fundraising expenses, which may violate federal law if the grant money was used for that purpose.
A December 2013 report by independent auditors found the organization owed more than $940,000 in state and federal taxes and also had serious problems with how it was handling checks and credit cards. That audit sparked the investigation that led to Monday’s report, according to the Legislative Auditor’s Office.
In her written response to the audit, Duplechain said officials did not knowingly do anything wrong and that she and the other officials were having money deducted from their paychecks to cover the costs.
“Alternatives Living and its officers did not knowingly or intentionally misuse public funds,” she wrote. “While we understand the findings of the audit, at the time of expenditure, many of the items mentioned ... were believed to be for business purposes.
“However, through many hours of consultation with accountants, (the Department of Health and Hospitals), independent auditors and the Legislative Auditor’s Office, we have more clearly defined allowable expenses.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.