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 and vote-selling. More recently, a campaign worker was sentenced to probation after he admitted paying $15 apiece for votes in the 2014 mayoral race in the Evangeline Parish village of Turkey Creek. The results of that election were overturned because of the vote buying. 

In the current federal inquiry, it's not clear which races have drawn the interest of federal authorities beyond the 2015 Tangipahoa Parish president's race and more recent municipal contests in Amite.

A broader scope — two sources say the inquiry goes back as far as 2011 — would encompass the past two sheriff's races and the 2015 gubernatorial election. However, the feds would likely encounter jurisdictional hurdles in those cases, as there were no federal races on those ballots.

The FBI would have no such issues pursuing irregularities in the November 2016 election in Amite, as the ballot that day included presidential and congressional races. 

Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards and his brother, Gov. John Bel Edwards, both told The Advocate that their campaigns have not been contacted by federal authorities in connection with the vote-buying inquiry.

Daniel Edwards said he has never hired Ruffino, the north shore operative who is under federal investigation. John Bel Edwards acknowledged paying Ruffino $8,750 ahead of his 2011 re-election to the Louisiana House of Representatives to put up signs and perform other routine campaign work. 

The governor's spokesman, Richard Carbo, noted that the payment was properly recorded in campaign finance reports. 

"Nobody associated with my campaign has ever told me they've been contacted by federal authorities for any reason," the governor said.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the investigation.

Ruffino's work has spanned the political spectrum. Since 2011, he has worked for both Republicans and Democrats, usually offering to help candidates make inroads in northern Tangipahoa Parish. He has claimed to be able to deliver African-American votes.

"It was to put up signs, (hand out) push cards, bring people to work at events," said Mack "Bodi" White, who hired Ruffino to work on his successful campaign for the state Senate District 6 seat in 2011. White's political stronghold is in Central, in East Baton Rouge Parish, but the Senate district also includes parts of Livingston, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes.

White paid Ruffino $17,500 for his services, according to campaign finance reports. He has not used Ruffino since 2011, he said.

Ruffino offered a similar pitch to Brett Duncan, a Hammond-based Republican candidate for Senate District 12 in 2015. Duncan paid Ruffino $7,000 to help shore up his campaign in northern Tangipahoa, Duncan said. But Ruffino did little more than create some positive Facebook posts that went on his personal page.

Ruffino has also worked for Democrats — John Bel Edwards and Ben Nevers in their 2011 legislative campaigns, and Caroline Fayard in her 2010 campaign for lieutenant governor.

Ruffino has had prior run-ins with the law. In 1989, while serving as mayor of Roseland, he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of attempted theft after being accused of selling a police car for $1,500. He was fined and ordered to forgo his government salary for two years. 

He was indicted again in 1991 on allegations of violating the state's public records law after he was accused of refusing to allow a Roseland citizen to view the town's sewer and water service billing records.

'I can't talk to you'

The FBI's current vote-buying investigation began with a round of grand jury subpoenas sent last summer to several officials in Tangipahoa Parish, including the Amite police chief, Jerry Trabona, and the town's mayor, Buddy Bel.

Trabona last week confirmed there is an investigation "ongoing right now" but told a reporter he "can't talk to you nothing about it." 

"Maybe I need to call the FBI and tell them y'all are inquiring about this," the police chief said. "They told me not to get involved in anything, not to talk to anybody."

Bel, a distant relative of the governor, did not return calls seeking comment.  

Federal law enforcement records obtained by The Advocate show this is not the first time authorities have received allegations of vote buying in Tangipahoa Parish.

In 2004, a confidential informant told the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that Artie Thompson, a former DEA task force agent and Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office deputy, had hired him to buy votes for Tim Gideon, a former Ponchatoula police chief who ran for sheriff against Daniel Edwards in November 2003.  

The informant described three occasions on which he met with Gideon supporters, including two Tangipahoa Parish deputies, and received cash payments from a black briefcase containing bundles of $100 bills.

The informant, who is not named in the records, said he also received campaign T-shirts and sample ballots, which he was instructed to keep out of the view of poll watchers and law enforcement. He was told to keep a log of voters who were paid to vote, the records say. 

The third meeting happened on election day behind a Texaco gas station in Kentwood. The informant said he was given more cash at that meeting and was told to give voters $5 to $10 each to vote for Gideon.  

DEA records say the informant was promised a job as a deputy at the Sheriff's Office and "an unknown amount of U.S. currency" had Gideon been elected. But Edwards won in a landslide, taking 60 percent of the vote.  

The allegations did not result in criminal charges.

Gideon did not return calls seeking comment, and Thompson could not be reached.

Advocate staff writers Tyler Bridges and Caroline Grueskin contributed to this report. 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.