The drug rehab Cenikor, recently hit with allegations it made patients work at private companies with no pay, has become an increasingly accepted alternative to jail in recent years all while public officials and state agencies have supported the organization.
Ethics Board records show more than a dozen elected officials – from legislators, like Baton Rouge Rep. Pat Smith, to local officials, like Livingston Sheriff Jason Ard and Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III – helped the nonprofit raise money at fundraisers.
In February, Gov. John Bel Edwards was honored as Cenikor’s “elected official of the year” for helping to combat drug abuse at Cenikor Foundation’s Voices for Recovery fundraiser. James LeBlanc, the state’s top prison official, was tapped as "community partner of the year."
The Louisiana Health Department in recent years paid Cenikor at least $7.5 million for providing treatment services for drug and alcohol addiction in state facilities. Now, the nonprofit also contracts with the private “managed care organizations” that provide medical care for Medicaid patients.
In the past month, however, Cenikor’s treatment practices, which includes jobs in private industry, have come under intense scrutiny in Texas and Louisiana. Attorney General Jeff Landry has opened an investigation into Cenikor’s Medicaid billing practices, according to a Louisiana Justice Department official.
An investigation by Reveal from the Center of Investigative Reporting and resulting lawsuits show the organization sent patients to work at the Exxon refinery, LSU dining hall and Ambrosia bakery, along with a host of other businesses. Several former patients even said they were sent to work at The Advocate.
Cenikor allegedly kept the wages leaving the patients unpaid – a scheme one lawsuit dubbed “indentured servitude” – potentially violating labor laws.
More than a dozen former patients claim in lawsuits they were sent to Cenikor by judges and court systems. Court officials, however, contend that judges typically don’t specify to which facility defendants must go in lieu of jail time, but Cenikor was one often used.
Edwards said he has not been made aware of “formal complaints” filed against Cenikor. But based on the allegations, he has directed the health department to share the findings of a recent licensing investigation into Cenikor with the Louisiana Workforce Commission, which is the state employment regulator. He said he has directed the agencies to work together to “look further into the allegations that have been raised.”
“It is important that we ensure access to effective rehabilitation programs for those who need them and that the safety and integrity of the patients in the care of those facilities are always protected and of the utmost importance,” Edwards said.
Cenikor did not respond to requests for comment from The Advocate. The nonprofit told Reveal it follows state regulations, but would not comment on business contracts, investigations or lawsuits.
Two contractors that sent patients to work at LSU and local chemical plants told Reveal they stopped partnering with the organization after the report came out.
James Sherman, the owner of Ambrosia, where patients made the bakery’s popular king cakes, declined to comment to the Advocate. Cajun Industries, which contracted with Exxon during the time period Cenikor patients allegedly worked at the oil and gas giant’s refinery without pay, did not respond to queries.
Judi Terzotis, president of The Advocate, said the company used Cenikor for some production staffing in 2016 and part of 2017, and paid the firm for the workers it sent. Patients worked in the facility where newspapers are printed and assembled.
Some of the probationers and parolees under the supervision of the state corrections department are referred by court systems, or go voluntarily, to a number of long-term inpatient drug rehabs, including Cenikor, DOC spokesman Ken Pastorick said.
Currently, Cenikor is providing treatment for 28 probationers or parolees, Pastorick said. The organization has provided services for people on community supervision for "the past several decades," treatment that is paid for by the parolee or their insurance.
The corrections department also has a pending contract with Cenikor for a maximum of $25,000 per year that is being reviewed by the State Office of Procurement, Pastorick said. That contract would see Cenikor provide court-ordered outpatient mental health and substance abuse assessments for state district courts. Those assessments would determine whether people are eligible for outpatient treatment paid for by the state, he said.
Ava Dejoie, secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, said the agency for the most part cannot disclose whether it is investigating workplace issues under its jurisdiction.
But the LWC does not have the power to investigate the type of wage issues raised by the lawsuits. That power falls to the federal Department of Labor. Robert Roux, executive counsel for LWC, said he passed along allegations against Cenikor to the feds.
"They are aware of the issue," Roux said.
Many of the patients now signed onto three Louisiana lawsuits against Cenikor say they were ordered there by judges throughout the state.
Andrew Bizer, a lawyer representing some of the former patients, said in some of the cases, a judge specified Cenikor as the treatment facility they would attend. In others, the defendant chose the facility.
Bob Downing, the former national director of Cenikor and a former Baton Rouge judge, defended Cenikor, saying “more people died this week in Baton Rouge from drug related crimes and overdoses than died at Cenikor during its entire history.”
Downing, through his campaign for an appeals court judgeship, donated $500 to Cenikor in 2011, records show. Downing was on the drug court in Baton Rouge in the 1990s. He said he could not comment on the allegations in the lawsuit because he is sitting ad hoc on asbestos cases.
Moore, Baton Rouge’s top district court prosecutor, said he has not heard any complaints about the facility as defendants have gone there in lieu of jail in recent years. Cenikor has been a “valuable resource” for the court system in recent years, he added.
Moore said it’s not uncommon for organizations like Cenikor to meet with judges and other officials to pitch their treatment programs.
He also said it is unlikely judges ordered patients to go specifically to Cenikor. Often, defendants will volunteer to go there, and a judge might then make attendance a condition of their release. But if the defendant came back to the judge and complained about Cenikor, Moore said he thinks the judge would certainly let them attend a different facility.
“I personally don’t know of anyone who’s been court ordered to go to a specific place,” Moore said.
That was echoed by Steven Belenko, a criminal justice professor at Temple University, who said defense lawyers and prosecutors often negotiate which treatment program the defendant will go to. Drug treatment is a prolific alternative to jail for many nonviolent drug offenders throughout the U.S., and Belenko said the process for figuring out where defendants go varies widely from place to place.
Poorer, rural areas with few options will generally send people to whichever facility is available, while large metros have a wide variety, Belenko said. Some court systems have staffers that handle the treatment process, which is what happens in the Baton Rouge drug court.
Drug treatment programs are generally more effective than jail in treating drug addicted defendants, he said.
But Belenko said in many cases there’s little or no vetting that occurs for the facilities, other than with its state license.
“The ones you worry about are more the private ones that are not receiving state funds,” he said.
However, Cenikor does have a license from the Louisiana Department of Health, which conducts an annual survey of the facility. And Cenikor has received funding from the health department in recent years.
Since 2007, Cenikor has received $7.5 million in state contracts, according to the Division of Administration. The contracts were through LDH for services provided at its Baton Rouge facility, as well as for taking over the Joseph R. Briscoe Treatment Center in Lake Charles in a privatization move. Cenikor also received money for treatment services at a Jennings facility.
Some of the money came from the state, while some came from the federal government, according to LDH. Cenikor received federal funds in a contract to serve as a "learning collaborative site for the implementation of various evidence based practices" at the Baton Rouge facility, the agency said.
The health department recently completed a licensing survey of Cenikor and found a few violations that had little to do with the allegations raised into its employment practices. Instead, it found a handful of rule violations, including a sagging floor and using a background check company that was not authorized.
Kelly Zimmerman, a spokeswoman with LDH, said the investigation, which was recently completed, included “extensive interviews,” records reviews and observations. It included a review of licensing standards, but also “concerns recently brought to our attention from the media.”
“We cited the facility for all deficiencies that we could verify. These are noted in the report that we shared,” Zimmerman said in an email. “If we receive a complaint, we will conduct another investigation.”
Cenikor’s fundraisers over the years were attended by several state lawmakers and other officials, including Smith, Ard and others, Ethics Board records show.
Smith, the Baton Rouge state representative, said she was not aware of the problems raised with Cenikor before reading them in the paper. While Cenikor's drug rehab has been successful for some people, Smith said she is "concerned" about the allegations.
Ard spokeswoman Lori Steele said the sheriff does not have any formal ties with Cenikor and attends fundraisers of many organizations.
The governor attended the recent Cenikor event, a fundraiser at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge, at the request of former state Sen. Willie Mount, D-Lake Charles, said Christina Stephens, an Edwards spokeswoman. Before that, Cenikor “wasn’t really on the governor’s radar,” she said.
The governor spoke to the group about how Medicaid expansion has allowed adults to have access to substance abuse treatment, Stephens said.
“He is aware of the report by Reveal and some of the allegations that have been made,” Stephens said. “To that end, he certainly expects that any group providing this kind of service would be following all applicable laws and protecting the safety and welfare of its participants.”