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East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore, pictured on Oct. 30, 2019. 

District Attorney Hillar Moore says his office has not found sufficient evidence the East Baton Rouge Parish Council on Aging violated state and federal laws during the agency's campaign for a dedicated property tax voters approved in 2016. 

"I cannot bring a charge before a grand jury I know I don't have the evidence to truly support or prove," Moore said Friday.

In a report released Friday, Moore touches on one of the allegations brought up in the May 2017 investigative report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office: that COA improperly spent public funds to support a tax proposal.

That allegation was made after voters approved a 10-year, 2.25-mill property tax, which currently generates more than $9 million annually for the agency.

Moore, in his report, notes the difficulty of prosecuting any case under La. R.S. 18:1465, the state law prohibiting such expenditures.

"In its over forty years of existence there are no reported cases indicating that it has ever been used as the basis for a criminal prosecution," Moore wrote. "This lack of criminal prosecutions over the years is likely directly related to the exception created in the statute itself, which does not prohibit the use of public funds for disseminating factual information, a factual and evidentiary hurdle that practically swallows the general rule.

"Thus, to prosecute an individual under this statute, the State must affirmatively prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual intentionally expended public monies on behalf of a candidate or proposition for purposes other than, or unrelated to, the dissemination of factual information."

The DA's findings elicited strong reaction from C. Denise Marcelle, a state representative who also serves as the vice chair of the COA's board of directors. 

"I am elated they came back with their decision because I never thought there was ever any criminal activity connected to that election," she said. "The allegations were really an effort to suppress the senior citizens' voices and the vote on the tax. Had the tax not passed, I don't believe we would have gotten audited." 

In a separate statement, agency officials describe Moore's findings as a conclusion to the three-year saga that played out after the 2016 tax election brought unnecessary scrutiny to the agency. 

"We have broached the final chapter of this saga, and as a board and agency, we have positioned ourselves to move forward in serving the seniors of this parish with transparency, integrity, and fiscal responsibility," the statement reads. 

The Legislative Auditor's Office had alleged COA may have violated state and federal laws in several areas to get the tax passed and in other facets of the organization's operations, including:

  • COA management and staff campaigned during work hours.
  • The agency improperly donated public money to Support Our Seniors to help a political action committee promote the tax.
  • Several COA employees illegally received reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency following the August 2016 floods.
  • Several employees didn't properly document expenses when using one of the organization's credit cards.

Moore says COA employees said they were well aware of the state law prohibiting them from engaging in political activity on the public's dime so they worked extra hours to account for the time they spent campaigning. 

"The (COA) does not have to prove that it spent time appropriately — a criminal prosecution requires the state to prove the time was spent inappropriately, and not made up elsewhere," Moore wrote. "The nature of the documentary evidence, and lack of countervailing physical evidence, results in the state lacking sufficient evidence to show otherwise."

Although he acknowledges there was lax judgment by COA in its close involvement with the campaign-related activities of Support Our Seniors, Moore says his office also couldn't definitively prove the agency's allocations to the PAC ever fell outside of the scope of providing factual information about the tax proposal to voters. 

Moore notes the Louisiana Board of Ethics has the regulatory authority to better address the allegations regarding the COA and the political action group. 

"Where the body with the primary regulatory responsibility and expertise in the field at issue declines to act, it is difficult for a criminal body to sanction the same activity," he states.

The allegations in the legislative audit report surfaced around the time COA Executive Director Tasha Clark Amar was embroiled in a legal battle over her involvement in a deceased Council on Aging client's estate. 

Moore in his report Friday says it isn't suitable for his office to investigate allegations involving violation of federal laws. He also notes COA had already reimbursed the U.S. Postal Service for using its nonprofit postage discounts for mailers Support Our Seniors dispersed ahead of the tax election.

Moore also says his office's review of the evidence in the FEMA reimbursements indicates there was confusion on the part of both the COA and FEMA about how those reimbursements should have been handled. He added the COA has taken steps since then to tighten its policies.

    

Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com