Agency returns ‘unusual’ $3M earmarked for Acadiana substance abuse clinic

A sign saying
A sign marking the entrance of substance abuse treatment clinic Steps Recovery Solutions on Friday, October 6, 2023, in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

Three million dollars to fund a substance abuse treatment clinic in Lafayette showed up in the state budget in 2022. And just as quietly as it came, it disappeared.

Brad Farmer, the executive director of the local health agency set to receive it, called the initial allocation “highly unusual.” He said the money has now been reabsorbed into the state budget as part of this year’s budgeting process, after the board of his organization, the Acadiana Human Services District, decided not to fight for the funds to roll over into the current fiscal year.

“I wish we could have used it in a different manner,” Farmer said of the money.

Returning the money would putatively clear the district’s name, Farmer said, distancing the agency from a sprawling state bribery scandal. But it remains unclear how the money, won without a public process by a group of well-connected businessmen, was earmarked to begin with. The group went on to open a facility in Lafayette without the state money.

The funds came as a direct allocation to the district from the state Legislature in 2022, an unusual occurrence, as the district is usually funded by way of a comprehensive budget request submitted by the Louisiana Department of Health.

The allocation of funds was made explicitly for the “operation of a 70-bed substance abuse treatment facility.”

As it turns out, three Lafayette area businessmen — Mark Fontenot, Jeff Richardson and Leonard Franques — had been pushing for the funding, with plans to open just such a facility in a former nursing home near the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s campus.

Emails and letters reviewed by The Advocate suggest they solicited and got support from six area sheriffs and district attorneys on behalf of the district before Farmer knew about it. It’s not clear which legislators pushed for the allocation. Several Lafayette-area senators, including Senate President Page Cortez, said they knew nothing about it.

Franques was later implicated, but not charged, in a bribery scandal that led to the resignation of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jack Montoucet.

Farmer had several qualms with the proposal once he learned of it, ranging from the lack of a public bidding process for soliciting a provider, to the cost of the care offered at the proposed facility as compared with existing contracts, according to emailed communications between Louisiana Department of Health staff.

With Farmer unwilling to move forward on the proposed deal, it fell through, and the funds remained in the district’s budget untouched, limited as they were by the specificity of the language in the authorizing legislation.

The businessmen, however, pressed on without the government funding they had vied for and opened a substance abuse treatment center called Steps Recovery Solutions in Lafayette in the spring.

Emails, LDH records and business and property records show Franques is a part owner. He and his wife bought the building on St. Julien Avenue for $600,000 in 2020. Fontenot is listed as the registered officer for Steps Recovery. It’s not clear whether Richardson is involved and in an interview with The Current/The Acadiana Advocate, Fontenot declined to provide details on the ownership structure of the company, which also operates a similar facility in Pineville.

Fontenot denied anything improper about the initial proposal and said he and his partners were able to open the facility without the help of government funds, but as a result had to give up on plans to serve patients who are uninsured or underinsured.

“We’re doing just fine,” Fontenot said. “It’s the indigent people that are out there that aren’t fine.” Farmer, he argued, had failed those in need in his district by blocking the proposal.

Fontenot said that even though the deal with Farmer’s health agency didn’t pan out, he’d still consider going for government funding in the future to help serve those patients. “We are going to work on programs in the future to try and help the indigent,” the businessman said.

When it became time to craft a new budget for the current fiscal year, Farmer said the district’s board decided it was better to give up on the funds for the time being.

While most agencies would likely be poised to fight for $3 million to stay on their books, Farmer said the shadowy origin and air of suspicion around the funds rendered the windfall radioactive.

“We just did not want to be associated with that in any way,” Farmer said of the board’s decision to let the funds go. “We don’t want to incriminate ourselves or tarnish our reputation.”