Questions arise over Westwego senior center donations

More trouble is brewing at Westwego’s senior center, as city officials question why donations that were dedicated to the center were instead funneled to another organization.

The Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office already has been asked to investigate the issue, and the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office could soon be involved as well.

Westwego Police Chief Dwayne Munch Sr. said he doubts that any criminal activity occurred at the center, but he’s passing his department’s findings on to the district attorney so that an outside agency can have a look.

“I don’t see that there’s been any criminal activity here,” Munch said. “It would be an accounting issue, not a criminal issue.”

The investigation is examining how the city handled the expenditure and allocation of private donations to the senior center. City Accountant James Butler said that he learned in November that when individuals made donations to the center, director Ted Bergeron Jr. would deposit that money into an account set aside for “senior excursions.” Often seniors at the center will take trips during the week, and the fund was used to reimburse Bergeron for costs he incurred on those trips, or for other gifts he purchased for seniors to encourage participation in activities, Butler said.

However, when Butler learned of the practice, he quickly recognized a problem. Louisiana law prohibits governmental agencies from purchasing gifts or things of value for private citizens with public money. Once Bergeron deposited donations into the city’s accounts, they became city funds and had to follow state rules, Butler said.

“Once it gets into a city account, it can’t be used to buy gifts,” he said.

With the approval of Mayor Johnny Shaddinger, Butler and Bergeron decided that the city would transfer the balance of the fund, roughly $4,300, to Louisiana Kids Inc., a non-profit for which Bergeron serves as one of the directors. As a nonprofit, Louisiana Kids would have no problem purchasing items for seniors. Then in January, Butler said the city decided to move the funds from Louisiana Kids to the Jefferson Council on Aging, although that transfer is still waiting approval of a new cooperative endeavor agreement between the JCOA and Westwego. Shaddinger acknowledged that the situation is somewhat unorthodox, but said there is nothing unethical or illegal about it.

“We don’t believe that anything was done improper,” Shaddinger said, adding that Bergeron is a tireless advocate for seniors. “At no time, at no point, did anyone do anything that was immoral or illegal. If a mistake was made, it was a communication issue.”

However, the unusual arrangement has piqued the interest of several Westwego City Council members who question why the money needed to be moved from city accounts to an account that Bergeron manages independently. Westwego formerly had a nonprofit dedicated to managing donations to the senior center, but that entity became dormant after the city took over the management of the center from the JCOA, Butler said.

Councilman Glenn Green wants the legislative auditor to examine the city’s books to be certain that everything is acceptable, he said. Several residents have contacted Green about the issue, and he said he wants an independent examination to satisfy them.

“We did not want it to look political because it’s election time, but it’s city money. It’s public money,” Green said. “It looks serious to me. … If what I’m seeing is what happened, then I want to know why.”

Councilman Ivy Rogers said he’s asked Bergeron to come to the council’s March 11 meeting to discuss the center and its funding. He added that it seems strange to see money used for city purposes funneled through private organizations, although he said the issue could be overblown.

“A lot of things get blown out of proportion, especially when it’s election time,” Rogers said.

However, Councilman Larry Warino said that not only is the handling of the money strange, but some of the reimbursements Bergeron requested when the city still managed the account concerned him.

He noted one instance where Bergeron took about 60 seniors to a restaurant in 2012 for a free meal and later requested reimbursement for a $200 tip. Warino said the entire situation has some unusual wrinkles.

“A lot of it just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Warino noted.

Westwego is already in discussions with the JCOA on how the senior center should be managed, and Bergeron’s management style has been a source of concern for the JCOA. Westwego has managed the center independently since 2008 through a cooperative endeavor agreement with JCOA, but that agreement has expired, and the JCOA wants some changes in how the center is run before it agrees to a new one.

In particular, JCOA director Al Robichaux has expressed concern over the way senior field trips are handled and a perceived lack of communication from Bergeron. Westwego spends about $200,000 to operate the center but receives $40,000 from JCOA along with meals for seniors and travel reimbursements.