Wednesday, February 2, 2011 One woman who says she worked for former City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams to help displaced hurricane victims has a felony conviction — for stealing tens of thousands in hurricane money from Acadiana Outreach. By Leslie Turk
Fifteenth Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson said last week what many Acadiana residents have been waiting to hear since the Lafayette Housing Authority audit was delivered to his office in mid-January: He will present evidence to a grand jury, possibly in February, to decide if criminal charges should be pursued.
“I think the public will prefer that,” Harson says. “I pretty much have what I need for the grand jury. I’m pretty much offering for everybody to come testify.”
One person sure to be at the top of the witness list: Paula Scott.
When the state legislative auditor’s findings were publicly released Jan. 17, ex-Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams, a former LHA case manager, went into damage-control mode with a well-scripted explanation he delivered on radio, TV and to print reporters (with the exception of this paper). Williams accounted for the portion of the 91 hours of overlap the legislative auditor found between his full-time job at UL Lafayette and an LHA-administered program designed to help displaced hurricane victims by insisting that employees of his Lafayette Training and Career Development Center did some of the LHA work. He also stressed the point that these good jobs had since moved out of this community because he and other local case managers were fired and claimed that the LHA made $1.5 million on the program because of the case managers’ stellar work — a figure the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official in Lafayette disputes.
The Daily Advertiser reported on Scott’s August 2009 arrest, in which she was initially charged with theft of $33,000 from Acadiana Outreach. In May 2010, she pleaded guilty and is making restitution of $46,000.
Williams’ non-profit, LTCDC, does appear to do quite a bit of taxpayer-funded work, taking in $172,200 in “public support and revenues grants” for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2009, and showing $175,000 in expenses. To support his position that he wasn’t the only worker on the job, Williams submitted to the legislative auditor notarized affidavits from two women, Michelle Mouton and Paula Scott, both of whom affirm they worked on the LHA’s Disaster Housing Assistance Program. The biggest problem with that explanation is everyone at the LHA believed Williams alone performed the case management duties and he was the only person authorized to access federal databases to complete the work. What’s more, Williams was unable to tell state investigators which of his employees worked on the program and when. Apparently, no such records exist.
Paula Scott, it turns out, may not make the best witness in front of a grand jury. In August 2009, Scott was arrested on theft and forgery charges for stealing more than $30,000 from her employer, Acadiana Outreach. According to the arrest record, she created false documents to obtain hurricane assistance money for her family and friends. “The defendant would pull up old file[s] for Hurricane Katrina and Rita, copy and paste her families’ names onto them, then submit them for approval. Once the checks were printed ... she would then mail and/or hand deliver them.” When Scott, whom records show was living in Opelousas at the time, was questioned by the center’s director, she confessed.
According to Harson, Scott pleaded guilty in May 2010 and received seven years at hard labor suspended and five years probation. “She had other conditions, but the main condition is that she agreed to make restitution of approximately $46,000 payable at about $769 a month over the 60 months of probation,” Harson says. “We collect it and remit it to the Outreach center. That’s how this was set up.” On Friday Harson said she appeared to be current on her payments.
“I’m in the middle of getting stuff ready for lunch,” Scott said Friday morning from her current place of employment, Williams’ restaurant, Country Cuisine. “You can call me back at about 2 o’clock.” Scott did not return a message left at the restaurant Friday afternoon.
An employee at Chris Williams’ family restaurant, Scott signed an affidavit indicating that she also worked for the DHAP program.
Williams’ attorney, Harold Register, declined comment after the legislative auditor released its report in mid-January and confirmed via email Monday that he also represents Paula Scott. “[Paula] will not be making any comments to you or any of the press at this time,” wrote Register, who notarized the two women’s statements. “I would appreciate it if you would not contact her again. Please direct all inquiries to me.” Register noted, however, that he has no comment at this time. “Thanks in advance for respecting my client’s right to privacy,” he said.
While Scott appears to be on the right track and is repaying the money she stole, it’s a bit unsettling — even to Harson — that both instances involve hurricane funds. “It’s a concern to me in some fashion,” Harson says. “I mean there’s no law saying he can’t hire her. It’s certainly a concern from the standpoint of who you put in there. ... You look at the prior conviction and you certainly have questions about it,” the DA continues. “It’s more of just a judgment issue [on Williams’ part], I guess.”
Though he would not be specific, Harson says he has received additional information from Monroe-based Allen, Green and Williamson, the accounting firm that conducted the initial independent audit that led to the legislative auditor’s involvement and ongoing investigations by the FBI and HUD’s inspector general.
“I hear the feds are pretty actively looking at this thing, but I wish they would say one thing one way or the other,” Harson says. “We may be duplicating some stuff we really don’t need to. My understanding is they have a pretty extensive deal, and I’m hoping the paper’s stories might lead them to talk to me about it.” Harson says federal investigators are often tight lipped about what they’re looking into but says he will try to talk with the U.S. attorney’s office to see if they can share resources.
“They might tell you they’re looking, but they won’t give you the details. There are some things they can go well beyond what I can do,” he says. “I’m just going to do my thing ... on the state level. There will be some stuff that might overlap. If I said I am going to sit there and wait for them, then everybody would be on my butt wondering why I’m not doing something.”
Harson would not speculate on how the evidence, or lack of it, might go over with a grand jury — in particular the absence of records and time sheets from Williams’ nonprofit company. “I would think it would not sit well with anybody,” he says. “[But] does the absence of records hurt him as much as it hurts me being that I’ve got the burden of proof? I’ve got to prove the guy didn’t do [the work], not just that he didn’t keep good records. There are other issues I don’t want to discuss that will come into play with that also. It’s not just the issue of paperwork. There are other things that have occurred that will throw more doubt upon some of that. We’ll see how it pans out.”
MAY 21 Gambit columnist Clancy DuBos writes about the Mother's Day shooting, and how the stages of shock and blame and healing mirror those traveled by the same city following Hurricane Katrina. The city will recover, just as it did following the storm, by reaching out to help the people injured most seriously by the event, DuBos writes. It's how we heal, he says.
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MAY 21 This post on Bayou Buzz provides insight from Louisiana's intrepid pollster, Bernie Pinsonat, on the winners and losers from this year's legislative session. But to hear Bernie tell it, there's almost nuttin but losers: Jindal, the Republican party, the Fiscal Hawks all get big goose eggs in his win column.
MAY 20 This post on The Lens takes a look at a huge (either $500K or $250K) bill that one NOLA charter now has for school lunches. The RSD says the charter group didn't fill out the proper paperwork for federal reimbursement, but the story details how the RSD didn't ensure the people running the charter had the proper training, despite requests from hapless charter employees trying to fill out forms. Either way, somebody's asleep at the wheel.
David Calhoun and Elizabeth “EB” Brooks are the first two employees of Lafayette Central Park Inc., the nonprofit charged with turning Lafayette Consolidated Government’s 100-acre Johnston Street Horse Farm property into a passive public park. Calhoun was named executive director, and Brooks is director of planning and design.
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