Amid Increased Scrutiny, Baton Rouge, La., Mayor Suspends Recent BRAVE Contracts

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's office confirmed that until a report on contracts, projects and funding for the data-driven Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program is complete, contracts issued in the past two months have been put on hold.

by ANDREA GALLO and JIM MUSTIAN, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. / August 2, 2017

(TNS) — Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's office confirmed Tuesday she is suspending all contracts issued from mid-June to mid-July for the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program after backlash surfaced this past week about the anti-gang initiative.

Broome announced Monday she asked her office to compile a report on BRAVE's contracts, projects and funding. Until that report is finished, a number of contracts issued in the past two months have been put on hold. Those contracts cover services such as art workshops, sports and transportation.

Two recent events triggered increased scrutiny on BRAVE. Broome announced Thursday she was yanking a BRAVE contract with activist Arthur "Silky Slim" Reed after he said at a Metro Council meeting that justice came to Baton Rouge when the gunman who shot and killed three law enforcement officers arrived in the Capital City last summer.

Also, the federal government last month rejected a request from the city-parish to carry forward more than $1 million in unused grant money for BRAVE, an initiative started under the administration of former Mayor-President Kip Holden.

On Monday, Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso sent letters to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and the state Office of Inspector General asking for audits into whether Broome was giving the BRAVE contracts to "political friends." The Louisiana Law Enforcement political action committee also sent a letter to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor asking for investigations into how the BRAVE funds were being spent, specifically pointing to $125,000 once intended for LSU's role in BRAVE but never approved.

"All BRAVE contracts have been suspended pending review," Janene Tate, Broome's spokeswoman, said Tuesday afternoon. "Any services delivered for payment are part of this review. Vendors are in the process of being notified."

Reed's now-nullified contract with BRAVE was not the only one that raised eyebrows. He was to receive $9,800 between July and September to help teens learn communication skills that could prevent violence. His contract also stipulated he would teach how to increase respect between police and the community.

One of the largest recently issued contracts for BRAVE gives $17,500 to Runner's Courier Services, owned by Cleve Dunn Jr. Dunn, a familiar face at City Hall, worked in Broome's campaign and frequently speaks at Metro Council meetings in favor of programs to help north Baton Rouge.

Dunn said Tuesday afternoon he had not received notice of his contract being suspended, and he stands by the fairness of Runner's Courier receiving a contract with BRAVE. He said his company has worked on city-parish projects in the past, citing the Green Light Plan and the Sanitary Sewer Overflow program.

Dunn said he only received word July 26 that the contract for Runner's Courier had been approved, so they had not yet started providing services. The plan was for them to provide on-demand transportation for people to and from BRAVE programs, as transportation has historically been a challenge for those participating in BRAVE.

"In no way are we prohibited from doing business with the city-parish," Dunn said. "There's no law prohibiting anyone who worked on a campaign from having a contract."

Another contract Amoroso specifically flagged was one for Isaiah Marshall, who had a $9,500 agreement to plan and organize a network of teams and players to host two community sporting events for kids and grown-ups living in the 70805 and 70802 ZIP code areas. Marshall was previously the president of the Capital Area Transit System board.

In his request to the federal government for to carry forward the funding for BRAVE, city-parish Assistant Chief Administrative Officer James Gilmore wrote that City Hall hoped to spend the money on programs for job skills and certification, jobs for teenagers, arts programs, community gardens, intramural basketball and pop-up "beat the heat" events. The original BRAVE grant from 2013 underscores the importance of building relationships between at-risk youth and law enforcement, especially through such activities.

City-parish officials have consistently blamed Holden's administration for leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars in BRAVE funding on the table even as it touted the success of the anti-gang initiative.

A newly released report compiled by researchers at LSU found that BRAVE suffered from a lack of communication with the changing of the guard in the mayor's office. Among other weaknesses in the administration of BRAVE, the report cites "bureaucratic issues with payment processes and (a) lack of consistency in proposed program activities and reimbursement" for service providers, and "the lack of broad faith-based community support in the neighborhoods BRAVE targeted.

"In examining BRAVE outcomes, we see areas where the initiative has been highly effective, as well as areas that have not been maintained or not been maintained with integrity," the report says.

The report, which examined data from 2016, concludes that "violent behavior in Baton Rouge has changed," adding that, through the end of last year, "overall violent crime had been reduced by 26 percent since the implementation of BRAVE."

But it also notes alarming increases in every violent crime category last year in the 70805 ZIP code, an area bordered by Airline Highway to the north and east, Choctaw Drive to the south, and the Mississippi River to the west. Those neighborhoods were the initial focus of BRAVE before it expanded to include the adjacent 70802 ZIP code area.

"The increasing violence in 70805 is disturbing and may be a reflection of decreased police presence due to the civilian unrest and the severe strain on law enforcement because of the flood," the report says, alluding to the prolonged protests last summer that followed the police-involved shooting death of Alton Sterling.

The report also found that BRAVE has greatly improved cooperation among local law enforcement agencies. And while the report doesn't mention the feds' recent decision to not extend the BRAVE funding, it notes the Baton Rouge Police Department and LSU have a number of other irons in the fire for other federal grants.

©2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.