Turk File

New details in Carlos Russo theft case

by Luke Darby

Alleged victim is a Navy vet with brain trauma resulting from a car accident three decades ago.

Carlos Russo

It started as a good deed - an act of kindness.

It started out to help a man who had served his country in the Navy for seven years - a man now in his late 50s whose life was forever changed nearly 30 years ago when a car crash resulted in the removal of his frontal lobe. A man who required the assistance of family members to manage his finances, most of which came from Social Security and VA benefits.

It started out as a way to help a man whose family needed a break.

These were the circumstances, according to a family member who spoke exclusively with The IND and asked not to be identified, surrounding the hiring of Carlos Russo, indicted Sept. 24 and found to have "willfully, unlawfully, and intentionally" appropriated a disabled man's funds "through the execution of a fraudulent or deceitful scheme."

The alleged victim's family, the source says, entrusted Russo to be representative payee for their disabled relative and receive his Social Security and VA benefits. Russo was supposed to be using the money for the victim's everyday needs such as groceries, bills and rent.

Instead, for the six months between December 2012 and June 2013, Russo allegedly siphoned money from the former military member and spent it on personal purchases, including trips out of town and Russo's own rent for the 110 Travis St. office where he operates the nonprofit Unhindered. According to online records on nonprofits, he started Unhindered in 2001 (although the Secretary of State lists the first filing in 2000) as a food bank.

The family became suspicious once the disabled man started asking for help paying for simple things like cigarettes, the source said. Upon looking into his bank records, it was "blatantly obvious," the family member alleges, that Russo had used the funds for his own personal expenses.

The family brought the bank records to the district attorney's office, leading to last week's felony theft indictment by a Lafayette Parish grand jury.

But this isn't the first time allegations of financial mismanagement have been brought against Russo, a man who spent years running various nonprofits around Acadiana and most recently was behind The Accidental Chef, a cooking school that paired Lafayette cooks with wannabe chefs for one-on-one lessons.

A Times of Acadiana cover story, "Let Us Prey," from the late 1990s details how several nonprofit organizations aimed at serving the area's homeless became wary of Russo and two other men who led the groups' efforts in securing and spending federal grants and private donations.

The three men were involved with securing grants for the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing, and members involved told The Times most of the money the group received went to organizations like Lafayette Catholic Service Centers and The City of Jesus, with which Russo and the two others were involved.

Over a two-year period, according to the story, the trio of men collected $2.3 million in federal dollars and were very successful at securing private donations. The money, which was supposed to be used toward projects like Joshua House - a transitional shelter for men - was never accounted for. In many instances, The Times reported, only a small fraction of the federal grants were spent on their intended purposes.

According to the story, the three men used "an unsavory blend of religion, compassion for the needy and the practical know-how to prey upon the generosity of others, as well as manipulate legitimate government programs to build nonprofit empires and perhaps further their personal gain."

None of the three men was ever charged.

Russo, whom the story identifies as a "dress-shop-owner-turned-evangelist with a history of financial troubles," was perhaps best known in Lafayette in the 1990s as the founder of The Well, a day shelter for homeless men.

Russo was fired in July 1999 and went on to work with Bethel Baptist Church to establish a similar ministry for the homeless.

The Times reported that many people in Lafayette at the time continued to support Russo despite these allegations.

The family member The IND spoke with was one of those who came to Russo's defense, only to have his own family allegedly fall victim to Russo. That family member says he hopes the charges and prosecution of Russo will protect any other potential victims. He also assured The IND he would be willing to disclose more details of the alleged scheme after Russo's arraignment on Nov. 18.

Russo did not return a phone call or email requesting comment.

"This is everything he has," the source says of his relative. "So for somebody to come along and take it and use it for their own personal interests, it's just really a bad thing."