National News

Nonprofits keeping close watch on feeding program fraud case

Posted May 7, 2018 1:27 p.m. EDT

— Local agencies that feed children during the summer worry that feeding program guidelines could become stricter after a Caddo Parish commissioner and his sister allegedly turned a federal program into a personal piggybank.

Josh Garrett, program coordinator at the Volunteers of America's Lighthouse program in Bossier City, says the feeding program is a lifeline for low-income kids.

"The reality is that it may be the last warm meal that our kids may eat before they go home. It helps fill in that gap," Garrett said.

Garrett said he and others who work at social services agencies are closely following the case of Caddo Commissioner Lynn Cawthorne and Cawthrone's sister, Belena Turner.

Cawthorne and Turner are accused of milking a federally funded summer feeding program for more than $536,000. The pair offered summer meals through a nonprofit organization they controlled.

They face eight federal charges, including wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Louisiana's Education Department also has sued them and three others to force the return of more than $100,000.

Cawthorne and Turner will be arraigned in federal court in Shreveport Wednesday. They're free on $25,000 unsecured bonds. Cawthorne remains on the Caddo Parish Commission.

One Shreveport nonprofit director says the alleged theft didn't directly take food from children, but the ripple effect from negative attention could have consequences for everyone who operates feeding programs properly.

"When there is abuse, we worry about cuts. We depend on this program as the whole United States does to help us feed these children, said Martha Marak, executive director of the Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana.

More than 95,000 people – in the seven Northwest Louisiana parishes the food bank serves don't get enough to eat. Marak said an estimated 25,000 children are among those people.

The food bank works with more than 25 programs like Volunteers of America to administer the federal summer feeding program. The summer program provides breakfast and a hot lunch.

"We vet these organizations that we partner with. First, to make sure that these are really children that are at risk and need this food product," Marak said.

The food bank sends agents to each site that receives federal funding to monitor the program from beginning to end. A team reviews each form five times.

"This is everything from the types of meals that we serve to the quantity of each nutrition component of the meal. How the meals are actually administered. How those meals are counted and registered," Marak said.

The food bank is also audited several times a year by an accounting firm and then every three years by the state -- all to ensure every penny is accounted for.

"This is everything from the types of meals that we serve to the quantity of each nutrition component of the meal. How the meals are actually administered. How those meals are counted and registered," Marak said.