Vermilionville foundation, board feud over grant money

Vermilionville's front entrance
Photo by Travis Gauthier

Bayou Vermilion District commissioners voted last week to demand payment of grants held by the Vermilionville Living History Museum Foundation on behalf of Vermilionville. The move escalates tension between the organizations, simmering over the last two years, and could end their cooperation.

The controversy involves a half-dozen or more outstanding reimbursements, roughly totaling $36,000, for grants the foundation received for projects and programs at Vermilionville. The foundation has declined to release the money, saying more documentation from Vermilionville staff is needed. But BVD attorney Ryan Goudelocke says the foundation is enforcing new requirements and stonewalling Vermilionville’s staff. 

“We’ve got to a place where the foundation is taking a position that it never has before,” Goudelocke says.

A planned cease-and-desist letter will require the foundation to “refrain from purporting to represent BVD or Vermilionville in grant application or other capacities,” according to language published to the commission’s agenda for July 27, and to stop using BVD building space and trademarks. 

BVD is a tax-supported agency that oversees maintenance and recreation on the Bayou Vermilion. It also operates the Vermilionville living history park with help from the foundation. The foundation collects money from donations, grants and various fundraisers and redistributes those funds to the museum according to grantor guidelines.

Goudelocke says the vote does not cut ties with the foundation, but discussions between the organization are being handled through attorneys. If the organizations were to sever, the foundation would likely dissolve. Cooperation between the staff and foundation had been business as usual until recently, Goudelocke, says when foundation board members began stonewalling the staff. 

“The staff sent over to the foundation the documentation to fund the remainder of the grants and there was no response, no ‘this is insufficient,” Goudelocke says. “They have consistently not responded at all, but when they have, it has been to require either documentation that doesn’t exist … documentation that the grantor agencies don’t have any interest in.”

Gary McGoffin, a volunteer attorney advising the foundation, says BVD has failed to deliver proper documentation of its expenditures. The foundation has to receive multiple documents before it can release the money to the board. 

[Disclosure: McGoffin represents The Current Media in public records matters.] 

“What we need are timesheets and payment records and invoices,” McGoffin says. “I’ve been told repeatedly by [the foundation] that used to not be a problem. [BVD is] not doing it now.”

The tension between the organizations has brewed since 2020. Vermilionville staff, backed by foundation members, issued a statement of solidarity after a wave of outrage and protest spurred by the murder of George Floyd. Several commissioners resigned after trying to stifle the statement. 

Commission turnover added several new members, including the current president, David Eaton, who is affiliated with conservative activist group Citizens for a New Louisiana. Mark Wiltz, another Citizens member added to the board, resigned when questions were raised about his residency.

Bayou Vermilion District Commissioner David Eaton
David Eaton, one of the new BVD commissioners associated with Citizens for a New Louisiana

The commission pushed out Bayou Vermilion District CEO David Cheramie, who stepped down after attempts to vote him out failed. Commissioners accused him of mismanagement. They have yet to appoint a new CEO. 

Whether and to what extent the dispute relates to that history is unclear. Eaton could not be reached for comment. Commissioner Calvin Leger, who was reappointed after resigning in 2020, refused to comment. Several commissioners contacted referred questions to BVD’s attorney. And foundation members likewise declined to comment. 

In a Facebook post, Citizens for a New Louisiana celebrated the vote, claiming the commission had kicked the “woke” foundation off of BVD property. The commission’s decision means the foundation can no longer use the address for mail, Goudelocke says. The foundation never had a physical presence on the 300 Fisher Road location.  

McGoffin says the parties have come to terms on two of the pending grants. Regarding the gridlock over the rest, McGoffin says the foundation intends to stay put. Without the documentation, he notes, the foundation will “return the money to the grant source.” 

Goudelocke says BVD has no plans to sue the foundation; the cost of litigation would far exceed the money owed to the board. He declined to speculate on the future of the organizations’ relationship.

“It does seem counterproductive to engage in any further cooperative grant applications or funding efforts with the foundation if the museum can’t anticipate what the foundation is going to ask for in terms of actually getting funds dispersed,” Goudelocke says.