Blind vendors, Jindal’s office spar over trust

Money being withdrawn from fund for legal battle

The trust fund doesn’t pay all of the programs’ cost, but it does supply dollars for health insurance, equipment and repairs.

A legal battle over the delivery of food services at a Louisiana military base has led to $365,000 in attorney bills for the state. It’s also sparked a feud between the Jindal administration and a group of legally blind vendors.

Central to the fight is a state-managed trust fund that takes money from vending operations in courthouses and other state or federal properties and uses it to help the legally blind run snack stands, cafeterias and vending machines.

What’s annoying some blind vendors is that money is being withdrawn from their trust fund for the legal fight. The trust fund doesn’t pay all of the programs’ cost, but it does supply dollars for health insurance, equipment and repairs.

The federal government might pick up part of the legal tab, but the state’s por- tion of the bill depletes the trust fund.

“They’re stealing from the blind,” said Rocky Marchiano, a managing consultant for Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of Louisiana, referring to the state’s practice of paying legal fees through the trust fund.

In 2009, the trust fund stood at $1.6 million. Now the balance is closer to $700,000.

Terry Camardelle, chairman of the Elected Blind Vendors Committee, blames the legal battle for the drain. The lower the balance, he said, the less ability the state has to help legally blind vendors buy equipment, make repairs and pay medical bills.

“It’s going to hurt us,” Camardelle said. “We had it up to $1.7 million, and we tried to run it responsibly.”

The committee, which is supposed to have a stake in policy decisions, also feels the Jindal administration excluded it in decisions over the operations at Fort Polk in Leesville.

Curt Eysink, executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, said the vendors are discounting other big obligations on the trust fund in recent years. In the past few years, $676,400 has been taken from the trust fund to outfit operations for the legally blind at Federal City, state buildings and Delgado Community College, Eysink said. He said the state is only responsible for 21.3 percent of the $365,000 in legal bills; the federal government pays the rest.

Eysink said the state hired private attorneys because the vendors filed grievances and a contractor sued over the military contract. He said the commission’s staff attorneys are too busy to handle the contract lawsuit, which is headed to trial in September. “We don’t want litigation,” he said.

The trust fund stems from 1936 congressional legislation — called the Randolph-Sheppard Act — that was designed to help the blind and the visually impaired make a living as entrepreneurs. The program’s participants manage facilities ranging from cafeterias to soft drink machines.

The Randolph-Sheppard programs receive a percentage of money from soft drink machines in public buildings that do not have a blind vendor. Those dollars help pay for blind vendors’ health insurance. The dollars also come in handy when a machine breaks or needs to be replaced. The trust fund helps support the programs.

The jewel in the state’s Randolph-Sheppard programs is Leesville’s Fort Polk, which has cafeterias, a commissary and a grocery store. For years, a legally blind vendor named Eugene Breaud managed the operation with the assistance of Cantu Services. Cantu acted as his teaming partner.

Breaud died in 2011. His replacement was Melvin Lee Frazier. Blackstone Consulting eventually signed on as Frazier’s teaming partner under a contract that could be worth $50 million over 10 years.

Cantu sued the state over Blackstone’s selection and asked for a new bidding process. The Louisiana Workforce Commission, which oversees the Randolph-Sheppard programs, hired Baton Rouge’s Shows, Cali, Berthelot and Walsh law firm to defend it. The Elected Blind Vendors Committee challenged the Louisiana Workforce Commission’s use of the trust fund to pay legal bills.

The Cantu lawsuit still is ongoing. An ad hoc administrative hearing officer denied the Elected Blind Vendors Committee’s challenges. Meanwhile, legal bills for the Cantu lawsuit are mounting. The state’s original contract with Shows, Cali, Berthelot and Walsh law firm was for $15,000. It’s been steadily increased. Now the ceiling on it is $500,000.

As chairman of the Elected Blind Vendors Committee, Camardelle said he was unhappy with Frazier being chosen to run the Fort Polk operation. He said the Jindal administration now is using the trust fund to fight for its choice.

Eysink said Frazier chose Blackstone, and the Louisiana Workforce Commission approved the choice. He said Blackstone has a good track record of making blind vendors independent. The trust fund also got roughly $100,000 last year because the agreement between Blackstone and Frazier kicks a portion of the profits to the fund.

Eysink said he didn’t initiate the legal fight.

“I think that those costs are being driven by their actions,” he said.