Review of arts council finances continues

Let’s focus on what matters
October 9, 2013
New TEDA details emerge
October 9, 2013
Let’s focus on what matters
October 9, 2013
New TEDA details emerge
October 9, 2013

State and local officials continue to conduct separate reviews of the Houma Regional Arts Council’s alleged misspending of $40,000 in state grant funding that was supposed to be set aside to supplement area arts.

Joe Koplfer, the council’s newly appointed treasurer and de-facto spokesperson in the wake of Executive Director Glenda Toups’ ouster, said the grant money was spent on operations expenses, such as employee salaries. Very little money remains in the arts council’s bank account, he said, and he’s awaiting bank records from several years ago.

“There was some comingling of grant funds,” Kopfler said, though he said at this point the extent to which the finances went awry is unclear.

Jacques Berry, communication director for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, which oversees the state’s culture, recreation and tourism programs, said state officials are continuing to audit the finances in an effort to “reconcile all the paperwork to see where it started going wrong.”

Berry affirmed the state’s commitment to ensure each entity or artist pledged funding by the Houma Regional Arts Council receives what they were granted.

The state will free up funding through administrative costs set aside for the Houma arts council for distributing next year’s and other in-house sources. He also said the Houma Regional Arts Council would conduct a fundraiser to recoup the state.

Kopfler agreed that the onus is on the arts council to rectify the situation.

“Our plan is to find everybody that we owe, let them know what the situation is and work with them to make sure they get paid,” Kopfler said. “If we want to get back in the good graces with the state, we’re going to have make some attempt to square away with them on those grant monies from whatever source we can get money, fundraising, grants or otherwise.”

The Houma Arts Council, one of nine similar state-created entities, is tasked with granting state Decentralized Art Funding to people who provide approved art programming in Assumption, Lafourche, St. Charles, St. John, St. James and Terrebonne parishes.

For this purpose, the council was allocated $54,000 to disburse in 2013. Of that total, $40,000 had already been paid to the arts council. Although several organizations were pledged 2013 DAF funds for their projects, none received the money, according to Berry.

“Step one was to develop a process to make sure the grantees get their money from 2013. That is complete,” Berry said. “They don’t have it yet, but we’ve rounded up the funds from other sources, and … they’ll eventually get their grants.”

Last month the arts council’s board of directors fired Toups after discovering the council had not contracted a private CPA firm to conduct an annual audit by June 30, making the organization noncompliant with state law. The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s office flagged the council for this in July.

Because the council is noncompliant, the state froze delivery of the remaining $14,000 in 2013 DAF funds and redirected the responsibility for paying out the $40,000 in commitments. Officials have yet to retrieve that money from the arts council, so they will use other sources to pay the artists.

The council is also barred from receiving or disbursing state funds for one year, Kopfler said. Most of the necessary materials have been delivered to a CPA firm to complete the audit, he added.

The Houma arts council issues have prompted the state to devise a new system of checks to help ensure other councils don’t go awry. Previously the councils reported to the state on an annual basis; going forward, status reports will be required at least quarterly. The state will also request copies of all payments made and all cancelled checks, Berry said.

Leadership of the council’s board of directors’ executive committee has declined to comment, instead funneling questions to Kopfler, who was appointed as treasurer last month. The position had been vacant since July. Multiple scheduled meetings of the executive committee this year were not held due to a lack of quorum, Kopfler has said.

The Houma arts council has contributed DAF money to the financing of sculptures along Bayou Terrebonne, the Jambalaya Writer’s Conference, Swamp Stomp, the Rougarou Festival, local theater productions and other events and projects.

Though state and local officials continue to search for answers as to how and why the money was not filtered to sub-grantees, the amount of future funding made available to the region served by the Houma arts council will not be impacted, according to Berry. The Arts Council of New Orleans will disburse the funds instead.

In addition to the state grant program, the arts council administers Terrebonne Parish grant funds aimed to strengthen arts programming.

Parish government makes direct disbursements of the parish grant to sub-grantees, so the money does not filter through the arts council, which is responsible for invoicing the parish.

The arts council collects administrative fees from the parish for its role in facilitating the grant. For the four-year span from 2009-2012, the council did not request these fees until earlier this year. The parish responded by restricting the 2013 grant budget from $18,000 to $12,000.

For the $12,000 in available ’13 funds, the parish has not received any invoices, according to the parish’s finance director.