Have you ever stumbled upon an unexpected transaction posted to your bank account? Most likely it was in the form of a debit. Perhaps it’s a subscription you forgot to cancel or just a transaction from a vendor name you didn’t recognize. But what about an unexpected deposit? Or more specifically an unexpected deposit of a large sum of money from an entity you weren’t expecting money from? That is a situation we have discovered playing out in Lafayette, Louisiana. And this isn’t an accidental transaction, but an intentional transfer of millions in tax dollars for the benefit of a specific group of people.
It all started with the Dusty Guidry plea deal. Then we told you Wildlife and Fisheries secretary Jack Montoucet, who resigned his post the same day our article broke. It’s quite possible that this scandal could touch every single public entity and official in the state. Here’s the latest installment, involving a cool $3 million in public funds that unexpectedly showed up on an honest man’s doorstep.
Acadiana Area Human Services District
The Acadiana Area Human Services District (AAHSD) is a creation of the Louisiana legislature (LARS 28:912) comprising the parishes of Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin and Vermilion. It is one of ten districts created to provide “state-funded behavioral healthcare and care for persons with intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities.” (LARS 28:910) The multidisciplinary board that oversees the district consists of a total of ten members. Each of the seven parishes have at least one resident appointed with the governor having the remaining three appointments (LARS 28:913(A)).
According to public records beginning in May of 2022 Monique Cross with the Director of Planning and Budget with the Louisiana Department of Health reached out to Brad Farmer, Executive Director for AAHSD, requesting information for the Legislative Fiscal Office. That office is an independent agency created to assist the House and the Senate in conducting research and providing technical assistance concerning fiscal matters (LARS 24:601). The inquiry from Cross specifically asked for “a high level spend breakdown for the $3M SGF for Acadiana HAS for their 70-bed substance abuse treatment facility in Lafayette.” Farmer in his replies to LDH seems to have been caught off guard by the legislative allocation being discussed. Farmer stated:
“This is not a project we sponsored or requested. We have no information to report, no idea as to who officially submitted this request, who sponsored it, or how the money is/was intended to be spent.”
Farmer continued in a separate e-mail:
“This is the same group that is doing business with CenLa. They came to my office last Monday and asked if I was interested in the idea and handed me 6 letters of support on my behalf. They had already been requesting funding before they even spoke to me about it… They want to open a site here in Lafayette and have us sign a long-term lease on the building and then seek other funding for a group to operate the program.
I really am clueless about this… have no idea how they came up with the number of beds needed; level of care; don’t have a contract in place with them or know what terms they would suggest.
It was out of the blue and I don’t know who they have spoken with about this or any of the details. It is a very strange situation.”
“… those guys are seeking to amend something to require the ‘leasor & leasee’ to agree on who operated a licensed program within the facility. Those guys are trying to set up a monopoly and take the decision about from the LGE as to how the contractor will be. If the two parties never agree, they still make money on the lease and won’t care.”
Letters of Support
The letters of support Farmer received at a May 9, 2022 meeting were open letters addressed to “friends” or the “State of Louisiana” signed by various local politicians. Farmer in a separate e-mail advised Cross with LDH that this “group” seemingly in cooperation with local political officials “used the AAHSD name to solicit support for a program I had never heard of at that time.” The letters which all contain very similar language voice support for “the Acadiana Area Human Services Substance Abuse Center.” The letters discuss “the need for additional beds to fully meet the need of the indigent and medicaid population. Acadiana Area Human Services District is seeking State assistance for the funding of a 78 bed substance abuse treatment center in Lafayette, Louisiana.” Those letters originated from the following local political offices:
- Office of the District Attorney for the 15th Judicial District dated May 3, 2022, signed by Don Landry
- Office of the Mayor-President for Lafayette Consolidated Government dated May 5, 2022, signed by Josh Guillory
- Office the Sheriff for the Parish of Lafayette, Mark Garber, dated May 5, 2022, signed by Carlos Stout
- Office the Sheriff for the Parish of Acadia, K.P. Gibson, dated May 4, 2022, signed by K.P. Gibson
- Office the Sheriff for the Parish of Iberia, Tommy Romero, undated and signed by Tommy Romero
- Office the Sheriff for the Parish of Vermilion, Mike Couvillon, dated May 3, 2022, signed by Mike Couvillon
According to public records, Farmer would send a series of follow-up messages to the local political leaders who authored the letters misrepresenting that the AAHSD was requesting funds from the State. But most of those messages were received without reply, with only one exception. Carlos Stout, acting on behalf of the Lafayette Parish Sheriff, indicated that his office “was approached to support the project” by “Representatives of the State as well as local business leaders.” Stout went on that they “…even provided me with a pre composed letter to redraft with our letterhead indicating our support.”
A review of the calendar for AAHSD’s Executive Director on May 9, 2023 contains an entry reflecting a meeting which was scheduled to occur between 8:30/AM and 11:00/AM. The entry reads “John S – AOD presentation.” “AOD” is believed to stand for a common industry term – Alcohol and Other Drugs. While the name “John S” has been reported to represent a particular member of the AAHSD’s Board of Directors.
HB1 and the Louisiana Budget Process
Every year the Louisiana legislature adopts a state budget. The adopted budget must be “balanced”, but it is acceptable that a deficit from the previous year is carried forward. The details of this budget originate in the House of Representatives every year through House Bill 1 and House Bill 2.
HB1 is where you can find an immense amount of “pork barrel spending.” But what most people don’t realize about HB1 is that there is very little attention paid in the form of record keeping. When it comes to the original request for money to be allocated, such a thing simply doesn’t exist as a public record. Sometimes the strangest allocations find their way into HB1 and no one can explain how or why the funds were appropriated. It is almost as though this is intentionally done to avoid accountability and transparency. The process is ripe for shady back room deals.
The 2022 Legislative session which resulted in Act 199 (HB1) contained what one individual termed an “oddly specific” allocation of funds. On pages 87 – 88 an allocation for the Acadiana Area Human Services District is laid out. It is here we find the $3 million dollars “for the operation of a 70-bed substance abuse treatment facility in Lafayette”.
The line item specifically designates the funds for a substance abuse treatment facility located in Lafayette. But what substance abuse treatment facility? The earmark doesn’t name a specific facility. It does, however, allocate the funds for a “70-bed” substance abuse treatment facility. The fact that the text doesn’t read that the facility have at least 70-beds, again is “oddly specific.” Even more intriguing is the money was not requested by the Acadiana Area Human Services District. In fact, in their decade long existence it appears that this is the very first time they have ever received any direct appropriation. This $3 million was appropriated to the agency without their knowledge, as though it were some sort of payoff or hush money. This occurred through Senate amendment number 68. That’s important.
While an exact unbroken chain of events which led to the $3 million dollars arriving at the Acadiana Area Human Services District “for the operation of a 70-bed substance abuse treatment facility in Lafayette” may remain concealed by the opaque legislative process, the level of specificity identifies the intended benefactors. We also don’t have to guess because these “local business leaders” were knocking at Farmer’s door before the ink was even dry on the bill.
The Intended Benefactors
It was on May 9, 2022 when at least two individuals made their way to the AAHSD office to meet with Farmer. At this time, HB1 was in the hands of the Senate Committee on Finance. It was at this meeting that Farmer was presented with letters from various elected officials that we referenced earlier. But we don’t have to guess at who was present because Farmer kept a record. It was Jeff Richardson and Mark Fontenot.
Jeffrey C. Richardson of Richardson Companies in Alexandria, Louisiana, seems to have a knack for getting taxpayer money to support his personal business interests. It was just last year that Richardson was involved in orchestrating a deal which allocated $9 million dollars from the State to purchase property in which he had an ownership interest. The Illuminator reported:
“The deal for the swamp purchase came together quietly. Senators inserted the $9 million allocation into the state budget, along with dozens of other items, just days before lawmakers gave it final approval in May.
Lawmakers didn’t debate the land acquisition publicly, even though it involves an unusual arrangement in which the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries will buy the site on behalf of UL Lafayette. As of last week, the state had no written agreement in place for the purchase yet.”
Of course, this is the same Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, under the leadership of Jack Montoucet, that we have recently tied to a federal public bribery investigation. Coincidence? Don’t bet on it!
Also in appearance at the meeting was Mark Fontenot. He like Richardson, has his hand in a number of ventures with some familiar names. In September of 2021 Fontenot formed Steps Recovery Solutions, LLC (STEPS) which is domiciled at 201 Oil Center Drive, Lafayette, Louisiana. Aside from the recent treatment facility that STEPS opened in Lafayette earlier this year, STEPS operates a drug treatment facility in Pineville, Louisiana, located at 210 Laurel Drive. According to the Rapides Parish Assessor, that property is owned by Leo & Elliot, LLC, a company which has two officers: Mark Fontenot and Leonard Franques.
Then there was that entry on the Executive Director’s calendar referring to “John S.” or John Stefanski (5/10) to be exact. He’s a State Representative from Acadia Parish and a member of the Board of Directors for the AAHSD. Was Stefanski responsible for getting the funding put into HB1? Not likely. Remember the amendment occurred in the Senate, with the facility falling within the district of Page Cortez (1/10). Was Stefanksi’s role as a Board member of AAHSD to direct the payout to a particular group of individuals? If it was, he has been unsuccessful thus far due to the Executive Director.
Taking Steps Towards Another Payout
Leonard Franques is the same person we previously identified as being a business partner with Dusty Guidry, through DGL1, LLC. That organization is a vendor identified in the federal public bribery scheme still under investigation. At that time we also linked Franques to Lake Wellness Center, LLC, one of the businesses that DA Don Landry reported his office utilized in conjunction with the Pre-Trial Intervention Program. But it doesn’t’ stop there.
Lake Wellness Center, LLC is located at 200 Heymann Blvd.; Ste. 201 in Lafayette, Louisiana. The building at 200 Heymann Boulevard is on a corner lot sharing the address of 201 Oil Center Drive: in the same building as Steps Recovery Solutions, LLC. Also, domiciled at this address is Midway Media, LLC, a company owned by Michelle Franques, the wife of Leonard Franques. Midway Media, LLC is yet another company that provided Pre-Trial Intervention Program services for the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. Now back to STEPS….
Steps Recovery Solutions, LLC opened their treatment facility in Lafayette, Louisiana, around April of 2023. The facility is located at 406 St. Julien Avenue in Lafayette, Louisiana. According to the Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor, the property where the facility is located, which is identified as having an address of 406 Dunreath, is owned by Bethany One, LLC. According to the Louisiana Secretary of State, the officers of that entity are Leonard Franques and Michelle Franques.
On August 8, 2022, Roy Viger sent an e-mail to Farmer memorializing an August 5, 2022, meeting. Courtesy copied on that e-mail were Richardson, Fontenot, and Leonard Franques. Viger is not only the CEO of Steps Recovery Solutions, LLC, but also simultaneously works as the CEO for Lake Wellness Center, LLC. Viger would forward over a proposal highlighting STEPS as a “70-78 bed” facility located in Lafayette, Louisiana. This language complies with both the letters of recommendation from local politicians and the appropriation language found in HB1. It’s also dated barely a month after HB1 went into effect on July 1, 2022.
Roy Viger, Leonard Franques, Michelle Franques and Lake Wellness Center are also named defendants in litigation before the 15th Judicial District Court. In May of 2022, Alisha Verrett filed a whistleblower suit. Verrett alleges that she was terminated from Lake Wellness Center by Roy Viger for “pointing out illegal and fraudulent billing.” Verrett further alleges that “Viger started billing their insurances, and Medicaid, without their knowledge and then would make them pay copays and deductibles so that he could bill for other unnecessary therapy and professional services at higher rates.” That suit is pending before Judge Marilyn Castle.
Campaign Finance Contributions
It is interesting to note that, with the exception of Sheriff Couvillon, each of the other elected political officials who authored letters to support for the treatment center received campaign contributions from Jeff Richardson, Mark Fontenot, Leonard Franques, Michelle Franques, Roy Vigers or entities they are associated with.
- Don Landry has received $6,500.00 from Mark Fontenot, $2,500.00 from Leonard Franques, $2,500.00 from Michelle Franques and $2,500.00 from Roy Viger. ($14,000.00)
- Josh Guillory has received $1,000.00 from Jeff Richardson, $2,500.00 from Mark Fontenot, individually, and an additional $5,000.00 from Surety Management, a business associated with Fontenot, $5,000.00 from Leonard Franques, and $8,500.00 from Michelle Franques. ($21,000.00)
- Mark Garber has received $1,000.00 from Jeff Richardson, $7,000.00 from Mark Fontenot, individually, and an additional $5,000.00 from Surety Management. ($13,000.00)
- K.P. Gibson has received $2,500.00 from Leonard Franques and $500.00 from Surety Management. ($3,000.00)
- Tommy Romero has received $5,000.00 from Mark Fontenot and $3,500.00 from Leonard Franques. ($8,500.00)
John Stefanski has also been on the receiving end of campaign contributions from this group, receiving $7,500.00 from Mark Fontenot.
What happened to the $3 million?
As it stand today, the funds have not been dispersed by the AAHSD. Executive Director Brad Farmer, who voiced concern from the beginning, has been very cautious to ensure that everything is handled “by the book.” Farmer has looked into whether there needed to be a public bid for the funds or some other avenue to ensure it was appropriately disbursed.
The next time you hear those same stale fear tactics like fiscal cliffs, diminishing revenues, and the end of the world, just remember this $3 million project. When they come to taxpayers for yet another financial ’emergency,’ just remember how willy nilly they are at sending millions of dollars to a non-existent project because a few of their friends asked for it. And don’t even get me started about busting the state’s spending cap.