Exclusive: FBI probing vote-buying allegations in Louisiana’s Tangipahoa Parish

FBI New Orleans
The Advocate file photo

The FBI has rekindled a broad investigation into allegations of vote buying in Tangipahoa Parish that appeared to have stalled, conducting new interviews and reviewing election activities and campaign expenditures, according to four sources with direct knowledge of the inquiry.

The bureau has cast a wide net, examining parish races going back to 2011, two of the sources said, but agents have taken a special interest in certain political operatives, including Louis Ruffino, a former mayor of Roseland who for years has offered “get out the vote” services to local candidates.

A longtime north shore politico, Ruffino has been involved in a wide range of campaigns in recent years. Among other relationships, the feds are asking questions about the consulting work he provided in 2015 for Carlos Notariano, a Hammond Republican who sought unsuccessfully to succeed retiring Tangipahoa Parish President Gordon Burgess.

Notariano, a former parish councilman, declined to answer questions from The Advocate last week about a $20,000 payment he made to Ruffino during the 2015 campaign.

He initially said he had “heard the name” of Ruffino but then, when asked about the payment, told a reporter to contact his attorney, whom he refused to identify.

Ruffino declined to comment.

Federal authorities have also contacted the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office with questions, according to Meg Casper Sunstrom, an agency spokeswoman. “We’re helping where we can,” she said. “We know they’re in town.”

Vote buying, which is illegal under state and federal law, often occurs under the guise of legitimate voter canvassing, but with campaign workers or other officials not only driving voters to the polls but also paying them for a pledge to pull the lever for a particular candidate.

The reward is often a nominal payment of $5 to $15, but the U.S. Justice Department defines a vote-buying bribe as “anything having monetary value, including cash, liquor, lottery chances and welfare benefits such as food stamps.”

Vote buying has been widespread in Louisiana for generations — among both major parties — but it is rarely prosecuted at the state level because elected district attorneys and judges often benefit from it, said Mary Frances Berry, a historian and civil rights leader who described the practice as a form of disenfranchisement in her 2016 book “Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy.”

“Nobody’s going to blow the whistle on somebody who’s using the same system they use to drive their own voter turnout,” Berry said in an interview. “The only time you see prosecution is when the feds come in, as they’re not part of that system.”

Candidates tend to distance themselves from the election day activities of campaign operatives, Berry added, “but they still know that there is a system” of vote buying in place.

Past prosecutions

Nevertheless, Louisiana has seen high-profile prosecutions in past decades. The Justice Department charged a host of public officials in Louisiana following a massive investigation into the state’s 1978 general election. The mayor of Leesville at the time, Ralph McRae Jr., resigned and pleaded guilty to buying votes in a section of town known as “the Crossings.”

The feds also charged U.S. Rep. Claude “Buddy” Leach, who won election to Congress that year by a few hundred votes, but he was later acquitted of vote-buying charges. Leach faced similar allegations of fraud — but was not charged — in his unsuccessful bid for Louisiana governor in 2003.

In 1997, a state grand jury indicted 64 people in St. Martin Parish on allegations of vote-buying…

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