A federal judge has thrown out all but one of the charges against former Livingston Parish President Dewey Ratcliff. In a ruling issued Monday, U.S. District Judge James Brady dismissed 14 mail-fraud counts — leaving Ratcliff facing just one bank-fraud charge that carries a maximum 30-year sentence.
In a 32-page decision, the judge found that prosecutors used the mail-fraud statute to turn a state misdemeanor into a federal felony. According to Brady, that’s an effort the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which oversees federal district courts in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi — has been “inclined to limit.” “(I am) cognizant of the federal government’s interest in eliminating political corruption,” Brady writes. “However, this court will not partake in what has been described by other courts as the federalizing of garden-variety state crimes.”
A federal grand jury indicted Ratcliff in November, alleging those with an interest in Waste Management’s Woodside Landfill contract financed his re-election campaign to the tune of $200,000. The landfill contract was a major issue in the 1999 campaign. Ratcliff is accused of getting $150,000 in bank loans secured with cash from a wealthy supporter. Also, a Waste Management lobbyist provided a political consultant with $44,100 in cash to hold as collateral until Ratcliff could pay a $57,000 debt, according to the indictment. Prosecutors contend mail fraud occurred when Ratcliff mailed a false campaign-finance report to the Louisiana Board of Ethics — as well as checks paid with the improper contributions.
But at a hearing last month before Brady, Ratcliff’s lawyers argued such crimes should be tried under the state’s election laws — not federal mail-fraud statutes. Louisiana’s Campaign Finance Disclosure Act prohibits any candidate for a parishwide elected office from receiving more than $2,500 in contributions, loans or loan guarantees from any single person. The act also requires candidates to file campaign finance disclosure reports with the Louisiana Board of Ethics. State election law violations carry fines of up to $500 and jail time of up to six months. By contrast, the worst of the mail-fraud counts carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Reached at his Hammond home Monday afternoon, Ratcliff said “I have no comment until I talk to my attorney.” Ratcliff’s lawyer, Lewis Unglesby, said he and his client are “very happy” with the ruling, which he said addresses an ongoing legal debate over what constitutes a federal crime.
“Over the last 20 years there’s been a tension between prosecutors wanting to expand the mail-fraud law and the courts trying to minimize that expansion,” Unglesby said. “This is a great example of the judge correctly recognizing that the states have to be allowed to handle what is a state issue. Just because a stamp is put on something doesn’t convey federal authority over the conduct.” U.S. Attorney David Dugas said prosecutors are going to review the opinion “carefully” and seek guidance from the Department of Justice’s Appellate Section, which determines whether rulings should be appealed. “The court’s ruling today acknowledges that there is case law to support the mail fraud charges contained in the indictment of Mr. Ratcliff,” Dugas said. “However, the 5th Circuit has not previously considered this issue and the district court concluded that the 5th Circuit would probably not interpret the mail-fraud statute broadly enough to cover the conduct charged in those counts of the indictment.”