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Board of New Orleans ‘mayor’s fund’ nonprofit sues former executive director

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. May 2021.
Phoebe Jones / WWNO
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. May 2021.

The board of a nonprofit organization founded by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell to carry out city-sponsored social programs is suing its former executive director after he accused the group’s governing board of financial abuse and mismanagement. Those accusations prompted a subpoena last month from the city’s Office of Inspector General seeking financial records, which led the group, Forward Together New Orleans, to freeze its spending and pause its programming.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday (Oct. 11) by Forward Together New Orleans alleges that the former director, Shaun Randolph, falsely accused the organization of impropriety — in public statements as well as in communications with the Office of Inspector General and with two New Orleans City Council members — after he failed to seize control of the board.

Forward Together terminated Randolph, who was brought on to lead the group late last year, in an email in mid-August. But Randolph has continued to represent himself as the executive director, going as far as to make his own Forward Together New Orleans website. He also has taken over the nonprofit’s accounting software, according to the complaint the board filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Randolph said he had no knowledge of the lawsuit, but maintained that he is still trying to lead the organization, which he says has no other staff, because he believes the current board is illegitimate.

“I’m not the type to get punked and just walk off,” Randolph said. “I’m not going to say I was terminated if I wasn’t. I’m not going to say I did anything wrong if I didn’t. I’m just stubborn like that, I guess.”

The board is asking a judge to affirm that Randolph’s termination is valid and order Randolph to take down the website and hand over access to the group’s financial records. Forward Together is also seeking unspecified damages and attorney’s fees from Randolph.

On Wednesday afternoon, Judge Nakisha Ervin-Knott issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting Randolph from trying to access Forward Together’s bank accounts or otherwise acting in the nonprofit’s name.

Allen Miller, an attorney representing the Forward Together board in the suit, said he could not comment on the pending litigation.

Set up in 2018 as Cantrell’s post-election transition fund, Forward Together has morphed into a philanthropic arm of her administration, doling out dollars for causes including gun violence prevention and rental aid, and has even participated in city transactions as its “fiscal agent.” The nonprofit has drawn scrutiny over its spending in recent weeks after the subpoena, as news outlets have reported.

The complaint details a months-long power struggle between Randolph and the group’s three-member board, which says it fired him on Aug. 17.

The board alleges that Randolph tried over the summer to install a new board of directors through a failed attempt to revise the group’s bylaws, aiming to “wrest control” of the nonprofit from the current board, according to the complaint.

In response, the group fired Randolph, who proceeded to accuse the board of fiscal mismanagement.

Along with speaking to the Office of Inspector General, Randolph said he has talked to federal authorities about the alleged mismanagement, though he declined to specify further.

He also went to the New Orleans City Council.

In an email to council members JP Morrell and Helena Moreno on Sept. 14, Randolph accused two Forward Together board members, Kathleen Kennedy and Eric Griggs, of stealing “over a million dollars in funds” from the nonprofit, claiming that more than $1.3 million had been drained from Forward Together’s bank account. Those funds, Randolph wrote, included public dollars from the city, as well as philanthropic contributions.

Randolph said Wednesday that the theft allegations he made were a misunderstanding after the board blocked his access to the nonprofit’s bank account, leading him to believe the account had been drained of funds.

But he said he has continued to urge local and federal investigators to focus on what he has identified are Forward Together’s true issues. Central among those, Randolph said, is the intermingling of the group’s mission as an apolitical nonprofit with Cantrell’s political interests and the running of city government.

He alleged the board tried, during informal meetings, to convince him to pay a public relations firm, Last Word Strategies, to provide marketing services with city funds to promote the mayor’s social programs “in order to help rally the mayor’s base and to do other kinds of politically focused activities.” Last Word Strategies has done communications work for Cantrell’s election campaigns and her political action committee, Action New Orleans.

Kristine Breithaupt, owner of Last Word Strategies, said she has worked for Forward New Orleans but has never done, or been asked to do, political communications for the organization.

“I was a communications consultant to FTNO for almost five years,” Breithaupt said in a statement Friday. “In that time, no one from the organization ever tried to hire me to do political work for the non-profit. It’s clear from all of FTNO’s public communications, via social media, mass emails and the website, that my work was focused on connecting residents to information about FTNO programs like rental assistance and immigrant aid.”

Randolph also raised concerns about what he characterized as a conflict of interest resulting from the placement of a top city employee, Liana Elliott, as a Forward Together “board liaison.” Elliott, who joined the Cantrell administration in 2018 as the mayor’s deputy chief of staff and was named last year as her director of policy and government operations, has taken part in board votes and discussions on the group’s use of city money, Randolph said.

A spokesman for Cantrell did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 20.

Note: This story was updated Friday (Oct. 14) to include a statement from Kristine Breithaupt, owner of Last Word Strategies.

This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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