Walter Pierce

RE: Underplayed by Outreach?

by Walter Pierce

The problems at Acadiana Outreach Center were more pervasive than we first reported, which, it turns out, was news to us and the AOC board.

**The problems at Acadiana Outreach Center were more pervasive than we first reported, which, it turns out, was news to us and the AOC board. By Walter Pierce

The meeting Monday morning in the conference room at the Independent office downtown started off tense. We - Editorial Director Leslie Turk, Staff Writer Heather Miller and I - sat across a table from Acadiana Outreach board member Rob Robison and newly appointed Executive Director Jill Meaux. We wanted to know why we were played for rubes in our recent cover story on the near financial collapse of Acadiana Outreach Center. In our Aug. 17 story, AOC's financial woes came off as more or less a combination of mismanagement at its ambitious Three Graces addiction-treatment facility in Abbeville and a precipitous decline in both state funding and charitable contributions.

But on Sunday of this week in an investigation by The Advertiser's Claire Taylor, we found out the problems at Three Graces were more grave and varied than we realized or reported two weeks earlier, including lurid accounts of sex between an AOC supervisor and a patient and misappropriation of another patient's savings account by an AOC employee who used the misbegotten money to bankroll casino gambling and dining at restaurants - isolated accounts in the greater sweep of things, to be sure, but key facets of the story that deserved reporting. Moreover and most important, the loss of state money was due to AOC being placed on probation by the state's Access to Recovery program for failing to report both the aforementioned sexual indiscretion and theft from a patient's fund in a timely manner.

But Robison and Meaux insisted - and we Ind staff members walked out of the meeting believing them - that they were unaware of many of the revelations in Taylor's report or the extent of the problems they had caused at the time we spoke with them. The Sunday Advertiser was an eye-opener for them, too.

There was nothing garden variety about the mismanagement at Three Graces - it was gross, it was negligent, it was epic. Ousted CEO Rick Newton and the non-profit's bean counter, Richard Hinchee - an accountant hired on a contractual basis - played a shell game with AOC revenue and with the income of patients, which is held in a savings account while they're undergoing treatment as a means of, honestly, protecting them from their addicted/recovering selves. And Newton and Hinchee evidently were so far beyond dissembling in the financial picture they painted for board members that it borders on lying. No, screw it, it was lying.

Money was improperly moved around from various accounts in an effort to meet payroll as projections for patient occupancy and the revenue it represented fell far short of projections. Yet Newton assured uneasy board members that everything would be OK, that a suspension of state funding was just that - a suspension and not a revocation - and that the funding would be restored after a little perfunctory paperwork was submitted. Dot an i, cross a t. Voila.

The Abbeville inpatient detox center was designed to be not only a self-sustaining facility, but a revenue-generator as well - a means of weaning AOC off the teat of charitable contributions, which had fallen off precipitously in the bad economy and which, like sales taxes, are a capricious source of income anyway.

Robison says he spent weeks with a CPA pouring over AOC's books in an effort to uncover fraud. So far, none - at least no criminal fraud - has been found.

Regardless, this is egg on our face at the newspaper, I'll reluctantly admit. We didn't submit the public records requests. Kudos to Taylor and the daily for digging. Much of the detail reported in the daily on Sunday, had we performed our due diligence, would certainly have made it into our story, but merely as warts on an already ugly portrait of a poorly managed non-profit with goals that in retrospect were far too lofty. Yet I don't think they would have changed our conclusion: AOC has a laudable mission and performs a necessary function in our community, if helping drug addicts deal with their addictions and move back into society is laudable, and we think it is.

Ultimately what seems to be at the bottom of the financial misery AOC is suffering right now is that it is run by a board of well-meaning, civic-minded people, most of them otherwise successful in business, who meet too infrequently and were naive about how easily a non-profit organization - especially those through which a lot of government money is funneled - can slide into dysfunction. The Lafayette Housing Authority comes to mind. Pollyanna does, too.