BEAM: Kennedy And Forgotston Are Holding NGO’s Accountable

Most Louisiana legislators wouldn’t admit it publicly, but a number of them feel nothing but disdain for state Treasurer John Kennedy and private citizen and government watchdog C.B. Forgotston. That’s because both men are continually bringing up serious problems and issues that lawmakers aren’t ready and willing to tackle.

I checked the definition of “disdain” to be certain it was the correct word. It fits perfectly. The dictionary describes disdain as “the feeling that someone or something is unworthy of one’s consideration or respect.”

Kennedy and Forgotston work independently, but happen to both be concentrating on the same subject at the moment. They are publicizing the fact that 34 state non-government organizations (NGOs) aren’t following executive orders and the law when it comes to reporting what they have done with some $4.5 million tax dollars.

This is just another in a long list of problems Kennedy has spotlighted over the years. Taxpayers like his ideas, but lawmakers and state bureaucrats dismiss most of his suggestions. They call them unworkable or unrealistic. Some even suggest he’s just a publicity hound.

Forgotston isn’t quite that lucky. Legislators don’t even give him the time of day. Most pretend he doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, he trudges on, and does have many followers. A column in The Sunday Star of Hammond even called him the “Sage of Tangipahoa Parish.”

The NGOs that the two are confronting are a small number of the many hundreds of private organizations that have received state money since 1984. The handouts began that year when former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards gave black legislators from urban areas $7 million to be used on local projects in return for their support of a successful $1 billion tax package.

Rural legislators decided they wanted a piece of the action, so the $7 million in what the Public Affairs Research Council called “slush funds” grew to $20 million. The handouts also took on a more respectable name — Urban and Rural Development Funds. Accountability was nonexistent. Most government agencies and non-government organizations that got the money spent it as they pleased.

The liberal spending of state tax dollars on NGOs continued almost unabated until former Gov. Kathleen Blanco abolished the funds early in her term (2004-08). However, they resurfaced in the budget under a title called “State Aid to Local Government Entities.”

State Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, had been trying for years to bring more accountability to NGO spending. He finally succeeded when he attached such an amendment to what became Act 842 of 2008.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who took office earlier that year, vetoed 258 special spending items in 2008, more than doubling the previous budget years combined. His administration also outlined criteria for funding of NGOs. They had to have a substantial regional impact, be presented during the legislative session, have state agency priority and proper disclosure online.

Even so, over $24 million got into the budget in the capital construction bill. The ploy didn’t go unnoticed by Forgotston.

“Thus, not only are we giving NGOs state cash, but now the state is borrowing money to fund NGOs…,” Forgotston said at the time.

Despite the reforms initiated by Blanco and Jindal, the spending has continued without full accountability. But now there is a new element, thanks to Kennedy’s initiative. He brought the issue back into the spotlight last month when he called out the 34 NGOs that aren’t reporting information that is required by law.

“We now have an agency in state government with teeth whose sole mission is to ensure every penny owed to the taxpayers is recovered,” Kennedy said. He is talking about the Office of Debt Recovery that was created at the spring legislative session.

“While most NGOs have worked in good faith with our office and have been in compliance, these 34 organizations have become the most flagrant violators of these important requirements,” he said.

Since Kennedy’s announcement, Forgotston has released reports on 10 NGOs. Each ends by asking legislators in the affected areas if those appropriations are more important than properly funding their higher education institutions. One area legislator said he isn’t a fan of Forgotston’s, but thinks he is rendering a service to taxpayers.

Kennedy said he has tried to contact some of the 34 organizations with little success. Some don’t even have working phone numbers.

State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, says Kennedy has mistakenly placed her husband’s non-profit agency (the Colomb Foundation) on the list.

“I think that the documents may be in (Kennedy’s) office and they’re lost,” Dorsey-Colomb told The Times Picayune. She noted that Kennedy’s recent office moves might be the reason for the mistake. She said documentation will be complete by the Sept. 4 deadline, and Kennedy confirmed his office had been contacted.

Whatever the case, taxpayers can only hope that the new state Office of Debt Recovery takes its responsibilities seriously and holds these 34 organizations accountable. And make no mistake about it, none of this would have come to light without Kennedy’s input and Forgotston’s follow-up. They have done taxpayers a big favor.

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