Blind vendors seek spending input

Terry Camardelle
Terry Camardelle

Angered at the way the Jindal administration is spending the money it generates, the board that oversees blind vendors in state buildings demanded Friday that it have a role in the expenditures from here on.

“They treat us blind people like kids,” said Terry Camardelle about the state deciding how to spend dollars in a trust fund filled with money raised by blind vendors. “We run businesses. We know how to handle money.”

Camardelle, a blind vendor from Marrero, chairs the Trust Fund Advisory Committee and the Elected Committee of Blind Vendors. Both boards represent blind vendors, who run most of the snack stands, vending machines and cafeterias in state buildings.

Though members of the Trust Fund Advisory Committee say the law is on their side, just how much impact the resolution will have remains to be seen.

Louisiana Workforce Commission spokesman Tom Guarisco pointed to a May 2012 ruling by a commission hearing officer, saying the state has the authority to spend the money generated by the vending machines.

A portion of the revenues from the vending machines and other services is sent to the trust fund, which then is used to attract matching dollars from the federal government under the Randolph-Sheppard Act.

The money is used to pay expenses and the costs of helping and training the legally blind who provide the services in government buildings. The vendors are angered that money from the trust fund is being used to hire private lawyers to defend the state in a legal action brought by the vendors.

The two state boards passed several resolutions that will be officially delivered to the governor and the Legislature. One seeks additional training opportunities to help the blind vendors increase their revenues, and another asks the state to enforce the laws that require any vending machine in a state building to contribute to the trust whether or not the owners are part of the Randolph-Sheppard programs. Another resolution states that it is only appropriate for the advisory board to “consent and concur with appropriations made from” the trust fund.

“The board wasn’t consulted about hiring a law firm, and we should have been,” Camardelle said.

The state should not use money from the trust fund to hire private lawyers for a legal fight, particularly when the state Attorney General has dozens on staff to defend state agencies, said John Burt, a blind vendor who operates in Houma.

The lawsuit involves the Randolph-Sheppard programs contract at Leesville’s Fort Polk, which includes cafeterias, a commissary and a grocery store. The vendors disagreed with the state agency’s decision on who got the license.

The state hired Shows Cali & Walsh LLP, a Baton Rouge law firm, whose name partner, Wade Shows, is a campaign supporter of Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, to defend itself against the vendors’ claims.

Curt Eysink, executive director for the Louisiana Workforce Commission, said in a prepared statement that his agencies “take seriously our legal obligation to manage the Randolph-Sheppard program, its funds and expenditures. We engage and value the input of the program’s stakeholders, including the Elected Committee of blind vendors and the Louisiana Rehabilitation Council.”