Who knew what and when? Barrow letter to state AG calls into question Council on Aging’s explanation for possibly violating election laws

A 2016 letter from state Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, asking the state Attorney General’s Office whether the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging’s executive director could campaign for a dedicated millage to fund the agency suggests COA leadership was concerned about potentially violating state election law months before it began campaigning for the tax.

In the April 4, 2016 letter, drafted on Louisiana Senate letterhead, Barrow requests an official opinion from the AG, apparently on behalf of the COA board of directors. At the time, Barrow  was a member of the board, though she no longer is.

“I would like to request a written opinion regarding what the CEO can or cannot do in her capacity as agency head when it comes to campaigning for the agency’s proposition,” Barrow wrote. “Specifically, in asking the voting populous [sic] to vote yes for this tax measure to support the seniors of the agency that she is employed by. … We and those we serve deeply appreciate your attention in this matter.”

In response to the letter, an assistant attorney general made clear that “the CEO may not expend public resources to support the proposed millage in question; however, she may support it in her private time using non-public resources.”

The AG opinion was among the exhibits included with a Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office report released Monday, which found COA management and staff may have violated state and federal election laws by using public resources and campaigning during work hours for the dedicated 2.25-mill property tax, which voters narrowly approved last November.

In responding to the audit, COA attorney Murphy J. Foster III suggested Monday that agency management was unaware of the finer points of state election law because the millage campaign was their first foray into politics.

“Mistakes were made,” he said. “But this is the first time the council has ever stepped into the political arena.”

But LSU Law Center Professor Elizabeth Carter, who has been following recent developments surrounding the COA, says Barrow’s letter shows the agency knew it was on a potentially slippery slope when it engaged in campaign activity.

“The letter calls into question their defense that they didn’t have any advice, and it suggests they were aware there were issues there, at least potential issues,” Carter says. “It clearly suggests they were aware there were challenges and that there could be some legal implications.”

Barrow did not return calls seeking comment.

—Stephanie Riegel

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