- State Rep. John LaBruzzo tried to help a nonprofit controlled by televangelist Michael Millé, pastor of the White Dove Fellowship church in Harvey, get a state grant to build a drug treatment center in Crown Point. Jefferson Parish officials, however, say no permits were issued for the treatment center, and the state has not received required documents showing how the money was spent.
A nonprofit controlled by a politically connected televangelist in Harvey got $200,000 in state funds in 2009 for a Crown Point drug treatment center that was not permitted to operate by Jefferson Parish and has not accounted to the state for the money. Now state officials want to know where the money went.
The nonprofit — Civic Outreach Center Inc. — has not filed the state-required CPA's "review" of its finances, according to Louisiana legislative auditor Daryl Purpera. The auditor told Gambit the nonprofit was notified of its failure to comply with state accountability laws and has since hired a CPA to complete the review and bring the group into compliance.
Civic Outreach Center is affiliated with televangelist Michael Millé and his wife Elaine Millé of White Dove Fellowship, a mega-church based in Harvey. The church and the nonprofit currently share the same address at 3600 Manhattan Blvd., although the group's 2009 application for state funds listed its domicile as 8089 Barataria Blvd. in Crown Point.
A check with code enforcement officials in Jefferson Parish showed that no permits were issued for the Crown Point address for the last four years — nor were any violations reported — which suggests that a drug treatment center, which must be licensed and permitted, did not operate there legally.
Michael Millé is the nonprofit's president and one of the group's incorporators and directors, according to records on file with the Louisiana secretary of state. Elaine Millé is listed as the group's secretary/treasurer and as a director. The Millés have made news before for allegedly buying properties — including the one in Crown Point — and then flipping them months later to their church at a sizable profit.
The nonprofit, which gave its name two different ways on its 2009 application for state funds — first as Civic Center Outreach Inc. and then as Civic Outreach Center Inc. — describes itself as a 501(c)(3) charity that functions as "a residential faith-based program designed to assist people with life controlling problems." The group's application states that it formerly operated a residential treatment center in Boothville, but the facility was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
In its effort to get state funds, the nonprofit had a well-placed friend in state Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, who formerly was a member of Millé's church. In 2009, LaBruzzo, then a member of the House Appropriations Committee, inserted a $200,000 earmark into the state budget to fund the Civic Outreach Center's drug treatment center in Crown Point. LaBruzzo says he supports drug treatment as an effective way to combat social ills; he adds that he now attends Lakeview Christian Center, which is closer to his home.
LaBruzzo's earmark for his pastor's nonprofit was perfectly legal — even justifiable in light of the metro area's post-Katrina needs. The church-based nonprofit proposed to open a residential treatment center at what used to be the Ave Maria Retreat House in Crown Point. The Millés bought the retreat center from the Archdiocese of New Orleans after Katrina for $850.000 — and then sold it three months later to their church for $1.2 million .
- White Dove Fellowship church in Harvey.
Several things happened after LaBruzzo's earmark that put the nonprofit in the spotlight. First, Gov. Bobby Jindal line-item vetoed the appropriation. The Jindal administration then gave the nonprofit a direct grant of $200,000 from the Office of Addictive Disorders in the state Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH). Neighbors in Crown Point objected to a drug rehab facility in their community, and the group received no permits from Jefferson Parish. Several neighbors told Gambit, however, that the treatment center operated for about a year, then closed. They say it remains closed today.
A 2009 funding request from the nonprofit shows that it initially sought $250,000 from the state, with the money to be spent on salaries ($118,000), unspecified "operating services" ($54,000) and "other charges" ($78,000).
The legislative auditor and DHH now want to know what happened to the $200,000 that the nonprofit received. Purpera says the group has hired a local CPA, John Nagin, to review its books and submit the review.
"We are waiting on it," Purpera said of the review, which was due June 30. Purpera added that a CPA "review" is not as thorough as a full-blown audit and should not take long to complete. "A review gives us some comfort that the money was spent correctly, but it's a lot less comfort than an audit," he said.
Purpera added that Civic Outreach Center Inc. remains on the auditor's "non-compliant" list, meaning it has failed to meet reporting requirements — and is ineligible to receive additional state funds.
In a statement emailed to Gambit, LaBruzzo praised the nonprofit as "modeled after and associated with Teen Challenge. The Teen Challenge program has for 50 years proven to be an extremely successful program that has had a record of over 86 percent success after five years, compared with just over 50 percent success of [government-run programs] at over twice the cost." LaBruzzo's statement added that "anyone receiving tax dollars to perform a service for the state ... must be held accountable for those dollars."
The lawmaker noted that he "didn't do anything special" to help Millé's nonprofit obtain the grant from the Office of Addictive Disorders. As for the group failing to report where the money went, he said, "I don't know why they haven't done it, but I support everyone being in compliance."
Millé has come under scrutiny on other fronts. WVUE-TV Fox 8's Lee Zurik reported last November that the Trinity Foundation, which investigates allegations of religious fraud, called for the IRS to investigate Millé. In addition to the Ave Maria property "flip," Zurik cited several other questionable real estate transactions.
A call to Millé and his wife went unreturned as of press time.
UPDATE: Oct. 14, 2011
Since this story first appeared in print, Gambit has learned that state Rep. John LaBruzzo has written to Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera asking that Civic Center Outreach Inc. (a/k/a Civic Outreach Center) be audited. LaBruzzo’s letter asking for the audit was dated Jan. 19, 2011 — more than five months before the nonprofit had to file an auditor’s review of its use of the $200,000 that it received from the state.
LaBruzzo told Gambit he had received some calls expressing concern about the use of the money after Lee Zurik of Fox 8 News did his story on the Millés and their church. The legislator said he wanted to make sure the money was used properly, so he asked for an audit “immediately.”
“Recently in the media there have been questions raised concerning some of White Dove Fellowship’s finances,” LaBruzzo wrote in his letter to the auditor. “Although CCO is a separate entity, there is enough relationship between the two organizations to warrant a thorough audit of the money given to CCO. This is to insure the taxpayers of Louisiana that the money dedicated to CCO and its drug treatment mission was used for those purposes alone. …
“I have no evidence of any problems with the accounting of CCO but feel in light of the questions raised about the affiliated church, it would be prudent and appropriate to insure that the funds were spent in accordance with all regulations laid out by the state of Louisiana.”
The full text of LaBruzzo’s letter is available HERE:
Another angle to this story may be the fact that Keith Ruggles Jr., who once ran the Civic Center Outreach drug treatment program, left the program and Millé’s church either during the year that the state money was to be used for the treatment center (2010) or shortly thereafter. Ruggles now is terminally ill.
LaBruzzo told Gambit that the main reason he supported CCO was because he was familiar with Ruggles and the work he had done at the nonprofit’s former treatment facility in Boothville. “Keith Ruggles is a fine man who has dedicated more than three decades of his life treating people with addictions, and he does not deserve to be tainted in any way,” LaBruzzo said.
As of Oct. 14, 2011, the nonprofit was still listed on the “non-compliance list” on the legislative auditor’s Web site.