As if we needed another example of government waste, a New Orleans nonprofit appears to be the poster child for what can go wrong when an organization receives too little oversight over taxpayer money.
Alternatives Living is a 21-year-old organization that supposedly exists to help people living with disabilities. Over the years, the state has paid the group – called an NGO in state government lingo – more than $10 million ($2.8 million in 2012 alone). That doesn’t include the money Alternatives Living has received from the federal government.
An investigative report by New Orleans’ FOX 8 TV showed what Alternatives Living did with some of that money. The organization’s officers, many of whom are related, spent $37,000 dining at New Orleans’ finest restaurants. They went on cruises. They took in Cirque de Soleil. They booked a trip to Las Vegas. They spent $23,000 on Hornets basketball tickets. They leased a $540-per-month Mercedes.
On Valentine’s Day in 2013, Alternatives Living’s chief financial officer, Rickey Roberson, spent $155 at Redfish Grill and dropped $216 at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The organization’s officers shopped at Tuesday Morning and Amazon. They paid vet bills with taxpayer money.
For an interview with FOX 8, Alternatives Living’s officers pulled up in a white Mercedes that leases for more than $500 a month. The nonprofit pays the monthly bill.
Amid the fine dining, entertainment, cruises and luxury car leases, the one thing Alternatives Living hasn’t managed to do is pay its bills on time. Late fees were assessed. The IRS is demanding $1.3 million in payroll taxes, penalties and interest.
Now you would think the state would be shocked by Alternatives Living’s spending habits. You would think the state would be calling for an investigation. You would think the state would be picking up the phone right now and dialing the legislative auditor’s number.
Instead, the state Department of Health and Hospitals defended the organization, saying “Alternatives Living does provide high-quality services through the Louisiana Permanent Supportive Housing Program.”
Patrick Lynch, a Loyola professor who also is a certified public accountant, had a different take on Alternatives Living. Lynch said the organization is living high on the hog on taxpayer money.
The problem with NGOs like Alternatives Living is not enough light shines on them. They get money through the state operating budget or the state construction budget and then they scurry into the shadows.
NGOs have gotten not just millions of dollars from state government over the years. They have gotten hundreds of millions of dollars.
In case you haven’t heard, state government has money problems right now. We’re cutting road maintenance. We’re dipping into trust funds that were set up for education, health care and TOPS. We’re grabbing money from every nook and cranny. In short, we are spending more taxpayer money than we take in because the state is not prioritizing the needs of its people.
What we should be doing is asking groups like Alternatives Living to return the money they misspent. You can be certain Alternatives Living isn’t the only culprit. How many other NGOs used taxpayer money for questionable purposes? We must be better stewards of Louisianians’ hard earned dollars.