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Commissioner pleads guilty to defrauding child food program

November 8, 2021 GMT

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — A Caddo Parish commissioner and his sister pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges last week in U.S. District Court, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Caddo Parish Commissioner Lynn Cawthorne, 54, and Belena Turner, 50, both of Shreveport pleaded guilty to wire fraud before federal judge Elizabeth Foote on Friday. They are accused of defrauding the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer feeding program for children, the Justice Department said in a news release.

According to the release, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Child Nutrition Programs offer a summer feeding service to give food to children during the summer school break. This program is administered by the Louisiana Department of Education.

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The sponsors are required to provide the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Louisiana Department of Education with documentation for the feeding sites as well as information on the budget and how many meals were served. They are reimbursed after filing these documents or can get funds in advance for pre-approved purposes, the statement said.

Cawthorne was president of the United Citizens and Neighborhoods Inc. which applied to sponsor multiple feeding sites. Turner was the executive director at this time.

Cawthorne started Harvest Catering Inc. in the name of an “unindicted co-conspirator” in May 2013, the release said. Cawthorne kept control of the company’s finances, which included access to the checks and debit card. Cawthorne and Turner allegedly gave the Louisiana Department of Education false information, saying the catering company would make meals for United Citizens and Neighborhoods. The state Education Department paid United Citizens and Neighborhoods over $33,000 and in the following days, Turner wrote a check to another nonprofit she directed and Cawthorne wrote one to Harvest Catering.

According to the statement, they used a portion of the funds for non-summer feeding program purposes. They took it via check, cash withdrawal or debit card.

Cawthorne also pleaded guilty Friday to one charge of filing a false tax return, a charge he was indicted for in December 2019. The release said he allegedly received unreported income from Harvest Catering. He reported an adjusted gross income of $7,555 during 2013, which he allegedly knew was inaccurate.

According to the release, Cawthorne and Turner each could face up to 20 years in prison, 3 years of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000, for the wire fraud charge. Cawthorne could also face up to three additional years in prison and a $100,000 fine for the tax fraud charge.