Legal Matters

What next for Russo?

by Walter Pierce

Since last year's felony indictment, the former "Accidental Chef" has paid restitution to a disabled Navy veteran, but are the feds about to seek their pound of flesh?

Carlos Russo

Indicted last fall for allegedly siphoning more than $20,000 via debit card purchases and ATM withdrawals from a mentally disabled Navy veteran for whom he had been appointed representative-payee by the Social Security Administration, Carlos Russo, former owner of The Accidental Chef cooking school, paid $18,000 in restitution recently in a deal brokered by a Lafayette prosecutor.

Jessica Broussard, an assistant to Assistant District Attorney Royal Colbert, confirmed for ABiz that Russo — a one-time evangelist, nonprofit operator and homeless advocate who was investigated but never charged in the late 1990s for allegedly absconding with grants and donations — paid the restitution, but said she couldn’t comment further because “the case is still pending.” A source tells us this might be due to a federal investigation because the allegations against Russo are tied to the Social Security Administration. Neither Russo’s attorney, Thomas Guilbeau, nor Colbert were available for comment Tuesday afternoon. Reached via Facebook, Russo declined comment.

Local sculptor/artist Ralph Goodyear, who is cousin to the victim and estranged longtime friend of Russo’s, first brought his concerns to the DA’s office after being contacted by the victim, who we’ll refer to only by his first name, Kenneth, to complain that he was frequently short of money. Goodyear says he asked Russo several times to produce bank statements tracking his use of Kenneth’s debit card, which he was authorized to do as Kenneth’s representative-payee. But Russo never produced the bank statements for a roughly eight-month period beginning in late 2012, so Goodyear brought Kenneth to the bank and obtained them himself. He says he saw a clear pattern of spending benefiting Russo and brought the financial statements to prosecutors who in turn presented evidence to a Lafayette Parish grand jury. That grand jury returned a felony theft indictment against Russo late last September.

Goodyear, who was in a recent meeting between Russo, Russo's attorney and the prosecutor, says Russo agreed, after his attorney saw the bank statements and consulted with his client in private, to pay restitution. Goodyear says that Guilbeau, Russo’s lawyer, made arrangements for Russo to obtain a loan to pay the restitution.

This check was issued to Russo's victim after Russo paid the district attorney restitution.

“The DA’s office never does this — this was very nice of them to do,” Goodyear says of the arrangement. “Like [the DA’s office] told me originally, ‘We’re not in the business of getting your money back; we’re in the business of putting bad people in jail and protecting the citizens of Louisiana.’ But they agreed in this case that it was terribly important that Kenneth get his money back because he needs his money, and if we put Carlos in jail then he wouldn’t be able to make restitution. So they gave him the choice ... to make restitution or be prosecuted ...”

(Kenneth suffered a severe head injury in an automobile accident just days after being honorably discharged from the Navy nearly 30 years ago. Goodyear says that while his cousin is able to speak and conduct many routine activities of daily life, he needs supervision and assistance with financial matters and can sometimes behave erratically.)

The bank statements that were the basis for the indictment show dozens of purchases and withdrawals by Russo during the time he was authorized to use the debit card on Kenneth’s behalf — everything from an almost $500 tab at Marcello’s Wine Market to massages at Massage Envy, covering his rent, cable and phone bills, and making ATM withdrawals of hundreds of dollars at a time. Another frequent transaction by Russo was to make small-dollar purchases — $3, $4 — at discount stores and supermarkets and then to get cash back, often 10 times the amount of the purchase.

According to Goodyear, Russo paid the DA’s office the restitution and the DA then cut a check to Kenneth — a tacit admission of guilt, although Goodyear says his former friend Russo went further.

“Oh, he admitted [to the theft] — he definitely admitted it; there’s no doubt about that,” Goodyear says. “He admitted it to us, to them, to everyone — he said it.”

As we alluded to earlier in this story, this isn’t the first time Carlos Russo’s apparent goodwill toward his fellow man has raised suspicion that he’s a little more than a huckster hiding behind good works. The Times of Acadiana in the late 1990s, back when it was a legitimate alternative weekly that routinely cranked out top-tier investigative reporting — full disclosure, it was owned back then by Independent Co-Publishers Steve and Cherry Fisher May — Russo was implicated but never charged in connection with some shady deals involving nonprofit groups that worked on behalf of the homeless. Read more about that here.

[Editor's Note: This story originally reported that Russo turned over bank statements to Goodyear. The former says those statements were never turned over and he had to obtain them directly from the bank. The story has been adjusted to reflect that.]