Unsealed court records shed light on Tangipahoa Parish politician’s long-running vote-buying scheme | Local policy
Candidates who wanted to vote in the parish of Tangipahoa have long turned to Louis Ruffino, a seasoned political operative who once served as mayor of the town of Roseland.
Ruffino offered an insider’s view of the community, a deep knowledge of his players, and the ability to deliver results. He has worked for candidates from all political backgrounds, Democrats and Republicans. His client list included local race candidates and some running for State House and Senate seats.
But in 2018, the contestants weren’t the only ones eyeing Ruffino. Federal investigators also had him in their sights, placing Ruffino at the center of an election integrity investigation in Tangipahoa Parish. Specifically, they were examining allegations of vote buying, a tactic with a long and dark history in Louisiana politics.
Late last year, Ruffino pleaded guilty to a single count related to vote buying in the 2015 election for Tangipahoa parish president. His plea remained sealed until July, when it was released after two other Tangipahoa Parish officials pleaded guilty to vote buying in the 2016 and 2020 elections in Amite City.
The documents attached to his plea provide rare insight into Ruffino’s operation, which is said to have lasted decades.
A long story
Candidates who promise to pass policies that will put more money in voters’ pockets — promising to pass a stimulus package if the candidate is elected, for example — do so under the protection of the First Amendment, the court says. Supreme of the United States. However, offering anything of value to an individual voter in exchange for their vote is a violation of federal and state law.
As one jurist said, votes can be purchased wholesale, but not retail. Over the past few decades in Louisiana, there have been a number of high profile retailers.
In 1978, Ralph McRae, then mayor of Leesville, resigned and pleaded guilty after a federal investigation into that year’s general election. Federal authorities later accused U.S. Representative Claude “Buddy” Leach of vote buying in the election that same year, although he was later acquitted.
The 1995 school board election in St. Martin Parish resulted in the indictment of 64 people for buying or selling votes. And in 2014, a campaign worker admitted to paying people $15 each to vote for a favorite mayoral candidate in the village of Turkey Creek. This election was canceled due to the crime.
Mary Frances Berry, a historian and civil rights activist whose 2016 book, “Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich” examines the practice of vote buying, said in 2018 that it was endemic to Louisiana politics among members of both parties for generations. But it is rarely prosecuted because those who would prosecute it often benefit from it as well.
“No one is going to report someone who uses the same system they use to generate their own voter turnout,” Berry said. “The only time you see prosecutions is when the feds step in, because they’re not part of this system.”
Decades of vote buying
Ruffino has been buying votes since at least the 1980s, according to a document attached to his plea known as a factual basis that summarizes the case and was signed by Ruffino. In his operation, documents show that candidates usually gave him money, which Ruffino passed on to people working on his behalf. These agents then took voters to the polls, told them how to vote, and paid them small sums, usually less than $20.
“During his nearly 30 years of involvement in politics, Ruffino participated in and led vote-buying operations on behalf of numerous candidates vying for local, parish, and state office in Louisiana,” the document states.
“For example, Ruffino participated in vote buying in Louisiana parish and state elections in 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2015,” the Factual Basis states.
He also bought votes in his own successful 1984 run for mayor of Roseland, the document says.
Despite acknowledging in the document that he had been buying votes for decades, Ruffino is only charged in connection with one election: the 2015 race for president of the parish of Tangipahoa. There was no federal election on this ballot, so Ruffino is charged with “using an interstate commerce facility” (a cell phone) to conduct illegal activities.
During that election, Ruffino worked for a candidate identified in the documents only as “Candidate A,” who paid Ruffino $10,000 in cash to buy votes, the document says.
“On one such occasion, before early voting in the October 2015 primary election, Candidate A personally delivered approximately $2,000 in cash to Ruffino at a car dealership in Amite, Louisiana, where Ruffino also worked. “, says the document. “Candidate A knew that the money he provided Ruffino was to be used to pay people to vote for Candidate A in the 2015 primary and general elections.”
Ruffino then distributed the money to others who took voters to the polls and paid them, and some of them he paid them himself, the document says. Voters were typically paid between $10 and $20 for their vote, depending on the evidence base.
Ruffino, the candidate and the vote-buyers all stayed in regular contact by cell phone, according to Ruffino’s plea documents.
Campaign finance records indicate that the only candidate in that race to pay Ruffino was former parish councilman Carlos Notariano, who was in the midst of an ultimately unsuccessful bid to win the open seat.
Notariano paid Ruffino $20,550 in consulting fees in 2015, according to reports he filed with the Louisiana Ethics Administration. The largest payment, $20,000, was made in March 2015.
Notariano has not been charged in this case and declined to comment on the matter.
Ruffino also declined to comment through his attorney.
He is expected to be sentenced on October 18. Prosecutors have recommended that he be sentenced to between 12 and 18 months in prison and fined $5,500 to $55,000, depending on the plea agreement.
2011: a turbulent election
Campaign finance records show that for Ruffino, the 2011 election — one of those in which he effectively admits he bought votes — was a busy one.
Among the officials who hired Ruffino that year was Governor John Bel Edwards, who was then mounting a re-election campaign for his seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives and working to elect his fellow Democrats statewide. Edwards paid $8,750 to a Ruffino-owned LLC called Northshore Political Consulting in a race he eventually comfortably won.
Ruffino was hired “to help with basic activities like soliciting and dispersing campaign signs and stickers,” according to Edwards spokesman Eric Holl, who said the governor knew nothing of the reputation. or Ruffino’s vote-buying activities.
Edwards paid by check and correctly recorded the payment in his campaign finance reports, Holl said.
“To the knowledge of the governor, no one from his campaign has ever been contacted by the federal government about Mr. Ruffino,” Holl said.
The governor first heard about Mr. Ruffino’s appeal “about three weeks ago,” Holl said last week.
Ruffino also worked that year for Senator Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, who paid Ruffino’s consulting firm $6,000 during his successful re-election campaign. Nevers said Tuesday that Ruffino had been recommended to him as someone capable of voting and distributing campaign literature and signs.
“I never gave him money to buy votes,” Nevers said. “I had heard he was a political operative in that area and it would be nice if he represented you.”
Federal authorities never told him about Ruffino’s work on his behalf, Nevers said.
Across the aisle, Ruffino was being paid by Mack “Bodi” White, a Central Republican who in 2011 was running for a state senate seat that included portions of Tangipahoa Parish. White paid Ruffino’s company $17,500.
Like Nevers, White said Ruffino was recommended to him. Ruffino made presentations around Tangipahoa and gave some advice on behalf of White.
“I never paid cash,” White said, adding that he knew nothing about vote buying. Federal investigators never spoke to him either, he said.
Other than the 2015 ward president race, no other races or candidates are mentioned in Ruffino’s advocacy materials.
Ruffino was charged in an information, which can often mean a defendant is cooperating with authorities.
It’s unclear what help he provided, but his case was unsealed the day after two Amite City officials, former police chief Jerry Trabona and Kristian “Kris” Hart, both Democrats, pleaded guilty on federal vote buying charges.
Trabona and Hart admitted to engaging in a vote-buying plot in the 2016 Amite City election, paying voters $10 to $20 for a vote. Because this election was held on the same day as a federal election, they were accused of violating federal vote-buying laws. Hart also pleaded guilty to three additional counts of vote buying in the 2020 election.
Trabona and Hart are due for sentencing on November 1. They face up to five years on each count.
The recent Amite elections had other problems. In addition to Trabona and Hart, Amite Councilman Emmanuel Zanders III, a Democrat, pleaded guilty last year and resigned after state investigators determined that a number of voters were registered in his district with fraudulent addresses.
Zanders was accused of asking residents to sign their voter registrations before filling them out.