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Beam: Hold private groups accountable

Last Modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 5:10 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

Just tell us where the money went.

Legislators and others connected to over half of 34 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have received $4.2 million in taxpayer dollars over the years don’t seem to be getting that message. They have skirted the real issue, but that’s not unusual for politicians and those affiliated with some of the local organizations that have received state assistance since 2006.

State Treasurer John Kennedy brought up the issue last month when he said, “Of the over 300 NGOs our office has reviewed since 2006, these 34 entities have had ample opportunity and more than sufficient time to fulfill their legal obligations. The clock has run out, and the time is now to find out what happened to this taxpayer money, and I’m asking the legislative auditor to help us find out.”

Some of the 34 have complied with the law, but Kennedy last week asked the Bobby Jindal administration to demand $2.1 million in cash or assets from 19 organizations that haven’t. And he forwarded that information to the new Office of Debt Recovery in the state Department of Revenue.

Those unfamiliar with the NGO situation might ask why the state is giving taxpayer dollars to non-government organizations. It all goes back to 1984 when former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards offered black legislators from urban areas $7 million for local projects in return for their support of his proposed $1 billion tax package. Rural legislators wanted a piece of the action, and what had been called slush funds became known as Urban and Rural Development Funds.

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Jindal eliminated much of the NGO funding, but it has managed to resurface in different parts of the budget. Even so, state law requires that the NGOs explain how the money will be used, submit budgets, detail where the money is spent and include documentation for all of their transactions. Those are standard requirements for any successful business, public or private.

State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, has had ties to two NGOs — the Colomb Foundation started by her husband and Serenity 67 with links to her senatorial aide. Both have collectively received $450,000 in taxpayer dollars. The senator has tried unsuccessfully to steer the issue in other directions.

“It is my job to help people in my district who are less fortunate, and I am never going to apologize for that,” she said. “We help big corporations with millions of dollars every day.”

Dorsey-Colomb another time said, “This is really crazy. It’s turned into a political war against me. Except, this time, I don’t have an opponent to vindicate myself.”

When asked why her husband’s NGO lost its federal nonprofit tax status, she said it was because of a learning curve on understanding which forms needed to be submitted.

And when everything else failed to convince the doubters, the senator resorted to a commonly used tactic. She said Kennedy is only getting tough with NGOs because he is running for governor.

Kennedy said, “I’m not going to comment on personalities. We have been trying for years ... to get the documentation. Most of them just totally ignored our request. There wasn’t much I could do about that. But now that the Office of Debt Recovery has been established, I can do something about it.”

Tim Barfield, secretary of the Department of Revenue, said the new debt recovery office would proceed with collecting debts if no agreements are reached with the 19 NGOs in 60 days.

Doug Baker, a spokesman for the department, said, “We have the ability to go in, investigate and we’re going to have financial tools available to us to recover the money.”

You may have noticed that throughout the long-running NGO controversy that the silence from the legislative branch has been deafening. No surprises there. A number of lawmakers have been recipients of NGO money for groups in their legislative districts. In the early years, some of the payrolls of local organizations included staffers and political supporters of state lawmakers.

The handouts used to show up in the state budget under state aid to local governments until the crackdown came. This year, they were sprinkled throughout House Bill 2, the capital construction budget.

C.B. Forgotston, who has been dubbed the “King of Subversive Bloggers,” on Wednesday released the 27th in a series of reports he has done on the errant NGOs. He ends each one with the same tongue-in-cheek comment about the organization.

“One can only assume that the leges would not have appropriated the funds for the organization unless its needs were a higher priority than the state colleges and universities, which had their funding reduced and student tuition raised,” Forgotston said.

Everyone knows that isn’t case. What is true is that NGO funding — in too many cases — has been a farce since Edwards created the bribery and political payola system 29 years ago. We hope Kennedy and the new debt recovery office are serious about holding all NGOs accountable, but past history doesn’t give us too much cause for optimism.

Just tell us where the money went.

    • • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com

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