Officials with the East Baton Rouge Parish Council on Aging are celebrating this morning’s announcement by District Attorney Hillar Moore that, after a two-year investigation, he has found insufficient evidence to prosecute CoA officials for questionable campaign activities leading up to the agency’s November 2016 dedicated tax election.
“I’m grateful the D.A. has come out with a ruling that I believe was correct from the beginning,” says state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, vice chairman of the CoA board of directors and a vocal defender of the agency. “I’m excited and ecstatic.”
Even before voters narrowly approved the tax three years ago, critics were alleging the CoA was violating state law and, possibly federal tax law, by campaigning for the measure using public resources and employees.
After the election, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor launched an investigation, reporting six months later that the agency had made at least six major mistakes in the course of the campaign, several of which were potentially illegal.
The auditor referred the findings to Moore, who says he had the legal jurisdiction to investigate two of those six areas: 1) that CoA employees engaged in political activity during work hours, and 2) that the CoA improperly donated funds to the Save Our Seniors PAC, which was created to campaign for the tax.
But Moore says in today’s report there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the CoA broke any laws.
With respect to the allegation that CoA employees engaged in political activity during work hours, Moore says, “the allegations are supported by documents obtained from the (CoA), including staff emails.” But he goes on to note that no surveillance was performed to account for the time of CoA officers and staff “who may well have spent additional hours at work to complete all of their tasks.”
Without that surveillance data, he says it’s impossible for the state to meet the high burden of proof that exists in a criminal prosecution.
With respect to the CoA’s relationship with the PAC, Moore acknowledges, “that the (CoA) was lax in separating funds to be used for (CoA) purposes and political purposes, a fact that the (CoA’s) response to the audit acknowledges.”
He says, however, there are two problems for a successful criminal case. “First, the use of funds as noted by the audit was arguably to support the dissemination of factual information, the exception that makes otherwise prohibited expenditures of public funds, if not the most prudent use of such monies, at least not criminal in nature. Second, as noted above, the (s)tate would be required to prove that the use of public monies was intended for a purpose unrelated to the dissemination of factual information.”
Today’s decision seemingly ends the controversy that has dogged the CoA for years. Following the election and the investigations into the campaign activity, other questions emerged over the CoA’s administration, financial picture, and handling of an elderly client’s will.
Marcelle says those problems are behind the CoA, which is now on secure financial footing and has addressed many of its problems.
She says larger, systemic problems raised by the challenge to the election, namely voter suppression, still plague the parish and the state.
“What is disheartening for me is the climate here, where they try to suppress peoples’ votes and voices,” she says. “and that was just another indicator that that’s where we are. I’m glad the D.A. has come to the conclusion he did. But this was all just an attempt to suppress voters and they continue to do that today.”