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Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, left, heads out for a flyover of stricken areas in the northern part of the state Hurricane Laura damage Friday August 28, 2020, in Ruston, La. (Bill Feig/The Advocate via AP, Pool)

Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser delivered a fiery speech to the state GOP Saturday in which he slammed some of the state’s top Republicans for “crucifying” fellow party members and made his case against the push for closed primaries.

In an interview afterward, Nungesser also said his office is being probed by the FBI -- apparently over grants made by his office -- an investigation he claims was ignited by fellow Republicans who see him as a rival.

The speech came at the Republican State Central Committee, which comprises the state GOP’s infrastructure, in downtown Baton Rouge. Nungesser’s staff passed out pamphlets arguing a move to closed party primaries would produce “extreme candidates” and exacerbate partisan gridlock.

He blasted the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, run by U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry, for “crucifying” fellow Republicans, and suggested Landry can’t win election as governor in the current open primary system because he is too far right on the political spectrum. Nungesser called the tactics of his Republican rivals "disgusting."

“There are Republican politicians, political operatives and PACs posing as party loyalists who only have one agenda: power,” Nungesser said in his speech. “Their own power. Look deeper. Listen a little more closely to those who claim to want a conservative majority. The real message is a narrative of entitlement. They are Republicans who want every Republican to believe that they are the mouthpiece of the party. But the same PAC, the same political operatives, the same GOP VIPs, they crucified other Republicans recently and used Republican money to do so.”

Nungesser’s father, William, was a chairman of the state Republican Party in an era when Louisiana politics was dominated by Democrats. Nungesser said later his comments were aimed at the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, which Landry and Kennedy operate with the goal of moving the state Legislature to the right.

Tensions between Nungesser and Landry -- both of whom are considered likely candidates for governor in 2023 -- have long been simmering, especially over the issue of closed primaries. Louisiana has a unique open primary system that Nungesser wants to preserve. Landry wants to ditch it in favor of a system where Republicans and Democrats separately choose their candidates for the general election.

The fight between proponents and opponents of the move has crept into public view in recent months. But Nungesser’s speech is the most visceral example to date of the bitterness of the dispute. Nungesser indicated he will run for governor in 2023 as long as Congressman Steve Scalise of Jefferson is not a candidate.

He also said he doesn’t believe Landry will run for governor, saying “he’s got bigger problems.”

“In an open primary, he can’t win,” Nungesser said. “I always thought John Kennedy gets re-elected and he runs (for governor). And listen, I welcome anyone to run. But let’s run in a fair race and let the people of Louisiana choose. If they close the primary you’re going to get the far right and the far left. And we got enough divisiveness in Baton Rouge.”

A spokesman for Landry declined to comment. A message to the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority was not immediately returned Saturday.

Nungesser’s fiery speech came after FBI agents interviewed one of his staffers as well as legislators in a probe of his office, he said. Nungesser said he didn’t know what the probe was about, but heard it was at least partly related to grants from his office.

He added that investigators have been calling lawmakers and others who stayed at the Lower Pontalba apartments in the French Quarter, which his office operates. He said he doesn’t know whether the FBI or state auditors are looking into that.

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“I'm not blaming anyone for that, but it's a coincidence that I haven't seen any polls but everybody tells me, 'They can't beat you for governor if you run in an open primary.' Because I help everybody. And I don't crucify anybody just to make a political grandstand.”

State Sen. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat who Nungesser said was interviewed by the FBI, confirmed that she sat down with federal agents several months ago to answer questions about money that went from Nungesser’s office to a nonprofit in her district when she was a state representative.

Jackson declined to name the nonprofit because she said it was cleared of any wrongdoing after opening up its books to the FBI. But she said the probe is apparently related to a number of grants given out by Nungesser’s office, as well as legislators’ use of the state-owned apartments in the French Quarter.

Jackson said while she had advocated for the nonprofit, she had never discussed the grant in question with Nungesser until the FBI called. She said she gave the agents information about the appropriations process at the Legislature and never heard anything more.

Nungesser has come across the FBI’s radar before. The agency has in recent years investigated Nungesser’s contracts and public works projects while he was Plaquemines Parish president.

Much like in that case, Nungesser said the new probe is politically motivated.

“I don't know who's behind all this investigation stuff. Is it a PAC? Is it because they don't like my political stance? All I want is the truth,” Nungesser said. “The FBI's got a job to do when they get a complaint. But I've been through this before with people that didn't want to see me be parish president. I only want to do the right thing. But you wonder why people don't run.”

Nungesser’s use of a Lower Pontalba apartment and space in other state buildings in the French Quarter has come under scrutiny before. The former Louisiana State Museum’s interim director, who resigned in protest in 2017, claimed Nungesser was using those assets for his personal benefit. That was around the same time sources told the Advocate the FBI was probing Nungesser’s administration as parish president years earlier.

Nungesser’s comments come ahead of a Tuesday hearing on a bill by state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, to move Louisiana’s congressional elections to a closed primary system. Hewitt spoke at the Republican State Central Committee meeting about the bill, to a crowd of about 200.

Hewitt said she sees both sides of the argument and isn’t sure whether the bill will get enough support to pass. Scalise has said he supports the move, while U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and Congressman Garret Graves oppose it.

Some proponents of the move believe it will lead to more conservative members getting elected. Landry, who is more conservative, and Nungesser, who has shown a willingness to work with Democrats, are on opposite sides of the issue. On Saturday, Nungesser defended his history of working with Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

“This is not the party my dad worked so hard to build,” he said. “I never saw Dave Treen ever crucify anybody or say 'if you don't vote for me, boom, the wrath is coming down on you.'”

Investigative reporting is more essential than ever, which is why we’ve established the Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund, a non-profit supported by our readers.

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