NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - An investigative audit by the state's legislative auditor is now in the hands of the U.S. Attorney and the Orleans Parish district attorney. The audit looks into a local non-profit, Alternatives Living, that was the subject of a series of FOX 8 investigations in 2014. The non-profit was supposed to help the homeless and disabled - but our stories showed the directors may have been helping themselves with agency money.
"It never even occurred to us as an issue," said Alternatives Living program director Ada Craige-Roberson when we interviewed the non-profit's directors in November 2014. They defended the hundreds of thousands of dollars of questionable spending from money through a grant from the federal government.
"When it comes down to personal charges on the credit card, at our agency we are always working," said chief financial officer Rickey Roberson. "Basically we are on call 24/7. And a lot of times like when we're working, we might get calls if we're out of town on a vacation or something like that."
The legislative auditor raised similar questions in a 27-page report released Monday morning. The auditor noted the senior officers used $133,164 of public funds for personal purposes. Another $247,925 in spending was labeled as questionable and lacked supporting "documentation." And the auditor said, "By using public funds for personal benefit," the officers "may have violated state and federal law."
"Some of the stuff, we just didn't know and we learned the hard way," said Rickey Roberson in our interview.
The audit noted $50,000 in personal entertainment expenses for tickets to the Hornets and Saints and to music concerts. The audit also noted $4,800 in payments for a Mercedes-Benz. We showed that Mercedes in our story last year.
"Well, I don't think it's a problem," Roberson said at the time. "We could have gotten a Chevy that paid the same amount of the note, the lease for. So I don't think the name brand makes a difference. I think the amount of money that we're paying on it, I think, is reasonable."
The auditor found $10,000 in car repairs and $9,000 for travel, including a trip to Las Vegas and expenses related to three Caribbean Cruises.
"We used the credit card for the incidentals and they're personal charges that came along with Internet access and whatever else we did, drinks, whatever," Craige-Roberson told us. "Tips would have gone on there, and tips are automatically charged, I can tell you that. If we went to dinner, like on the cruise, it would have been there. If we did… Sometimes I booked the excursions separately. But if they were booked onboard and we did an excursion, it was on there."
The personal expenses also included tuition payments to Alcorn State University for Rickey and Ada Roberson's son, life insurance policies and satellite radio and spa expenses. The three senior managers - Ada and Rickey Roberson, along with Ada's mother Melanie Duplechain - also charged $31,000 at local restaurants.
We showed one instance on April 8, 2012; the Facebook page of Ada Roberson had a picture of the family outside Red Fish Grill after "a delicious brunch." In another post, she wrote, "Rick and I at Red Fish getting our Easter eating on." That meal was charged to the non-profit's credit card: $357.
In a response to the auditor, Alternatives Living said the personal expenses will be reimbursed to the agency. Alternatives also wrote, "We have, and will continue to take an introspective look at ourselves… to strengthen oversight and accountability."
In our interview, the agency's directors said they never considered the charges personal. "In our minds, we're not really thinking we're paying for our personal vacation on the company," Craige-Roberson said.
But the legislative auditor says they were, and it could mean problems for Alternatives Living. The auditor concluded that $133,000 in expenses appear to be personal in nature, writing, "Expenses that are personal in nature may violate state and federal law and the federal regulations governing allowable costs for federal grant funds."
The audit said the officers may have committed theft by spending federal funds on personal expenses. Alternatives Living told the auditors the Robersons so far have repaid $20,000 and they are making biweekly payments toward expenditures that were deemed personal.