In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election, the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging’s political action committee, Support Our Seniors, began circulating a flier promoting a proposed 2.25-mill property tax that would generate nearly $8 million annually for the agency.
The flier was really more of a sample ballot for the upcoming election that featured not only the tax proposal but also a slate of Democratic office seekers from presidential contender Hillary Clinton down to Metro Council candidates.
While the flier may have helped the tax get passed, it also caught the eye of more than a few opponents of the proposed millage, who were already questioning the COA’s justification for a dedicated property tax. They hired an attorney to investigate, Chris Alexander, who turned up evidence alleging the COA—not its PAC—was behind the flier. If true, the nonprofit organization could be in violation of state and federal laws.
Specifically, Alexander found that Corey Williams, the COA’s director of development, solicited a $500 donation from at least one Metro Council candidate, offering in return to include her name on the flier.
Alexander says the solicitation is evidence the COA directed public resources to the creation of the flier. Charitable nonprofit organizations that receive public funds are prohibited in the state constitution and in the federal tax code from engaging in political activity. The COA receives more than 80% of its revenue from public sources.
“Every tax-funded charity needs to remember that this is not their money, it is ours,” he says. “They need to be good stewards of it.”
An attorney for the COA, Murphy J. Foster III, concedes Williams solicited the donation and says it was wrong. But he suggests punitive action taken against Williams by the COA was as far as the matter needs to go.
“That was inappropriate and was corrected,” Foster says. “He was reprimanded.”
Additional allegations of improper campaign activity surfaced after the election, when reports emerged that the PAC had mailed the controversial fliers from the COA offices using the nonprofit organization’s discounted postage rate. Foster says that, too, was a mistake, though he blames the post office.
“Someone from the council received a phone call from the post office asking what their nonprofit tax ID number is,” he says. “The post office then charged that rate to the PAC for the mailing of the ballot, but when this was discovered the PAC wrote a separate check to make up the difference.”
In what was yet another troubling discovery, campaign finance reports showed that the COA contributed to the PAC. Foster says the contributions were individual donations that came from employee payroll deductions and were perfectly legal.
Alexander has asked several law enforcement agencies to look into the matter. So far, only the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office is taking him up on it. Daryl Purpera says his office is conducting a forensic audit of the COA’s campaign activities to determine whether the agency violated state law.
“But we have no enforcement power,” he points out. So if the audit finds evidence the COA violated a state or federal law, it would be up to the district attorney or the U.S. attorney’s office to bring criminal charges.
Foster is confident it won’t come to that.
“I have no reason to believe there is an investigation pending,” he says.
But Alexander says he and his clients believe the issue is too important to be swept under the rug.
“It is critically important that the clear line between taxpayer funded charity and political advocacy be maintained,” he says. “The day it becomes routinely blurred is the day our system becomes irreversibly corrupted.”