Allegations of campaign irregularities.
Petitions received: Dec. 5, 1996
Referred to committee: Dec. 5, 1996
Committee action terminating investigation: Oct. 1, 1997
Senate vote: May 20, 1998
Result: Landrieu retained seat
On November 5, 1996, Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu defeated Republican Woody Jenkins for an open Senate seat by the narrow margin of 5,788 votes out of 1.7 million cast. The secretary of state of Louisiana, a Republican, certified the results of the election, but Jenkins challenged the result, claiming "widespread vote tampering." Initially, he filed suit in Louisiana, but when a hearing was called for November 18, he dropped the suit on the grounds that he had insufficient time to prepare. On December 5, Jenkins filed a petition of election contest with the Senate, contending that more than 5,788 fraudulent votes had been cast and that Landrieu's victory should be invalidated. He followed up on December 18 with an amended petition accompanied by extensive documentation. The charges included voting by dead people, illegal transportation of voters to the polls, voters voting more than once, and voters being paid to vote. The Senate referred the matter to the Committee on Rules and Administration, chaired by Senator John Warner (Republican-VA).
Statement of the Case
When the 105th Congress convened on January 7, 1997, Mary Landrieu was seated "without prejudice," in accordance with the precedent under which the Senate recognizes a claimant whose election has been certified by the state.
To examine the allegations, the committee promptly hired two attorneys, William B. Canfield for the Republicans and Robert F. Bauer for the Democrats. They were to review the petition and accompanying documents and recommend to the committee whether the petition should be dismissed. Senator Landrieu also filed a response to the petition.
Adding a further political dimension was the fact that certain complaints focused on efforts to get out the vote in New Orleans districts that had a majority of African American voters. The election also involved ballot measures that would permit local jurisdictions to ban gambling, which had attracted considerable amounts of campaign contributions from casinos and other gambling interests. Since a large proportion of those supporting gambling were Democrats, the efforts to encourage a heavy Democratic vote had aided Landrieu even though she herself did not support gambling.
Not content to wait for the investigation to take its course, Woody Jenkins' supporters mounted a public campaign lobbying Republican senators to conduct a full-scale investigation.
Landrieu, too, took an active stance, commissioning a study by the accounting firm KMPG Peat Marwick to examine the alleged "phantom votes" charged by Jenkins. The report, released in late March, stated that "many of the alleged phantom votes are ... not phantom votes by Mr. Jenkins' definition."
Response of the Senate
In early April, after sifting through the voluminous material submitted, the two attorneys announced that they had agreed to file a single report with the committee. Pointing out that Jenkins had presented evidence of no more than 200 alleged multiple votes—too few to have affected the outcome of the election—they concluded that "under the precedents of the Senate [such a major investigation] is not yet justified." In their report they recommended that some serious allegations warranted a further limited investigation by the committee. Although they found no evidence that Landrieu took part in any of the fraudulent activities charged, they considered the claims of fraud serious enough to pursue further. They asked to be sent to Louisiana to interview possible witnesses and estimated that such an inquiry could be completed within a month. Before deciding on further action, the Rules Committee scheduled a hearing to obtain testimony from Landrieu and Jenkins.
On April 15, Jenkins appeared before the committee, as did Landrieu's lawyer. While Democratic committee members stressed the lack of evidence to back Jenkins' charges of hundreds of hired vans delivering thousands of multiple voters, Republicans pressed for a broader probe than the two attorneys had recommended. Later that week, on the evening of April 17, the committee voted 9 to 7 along party lines to conduct an unlimited investigation using a team of outside attorneys, headed by a Virginia Republican. Democrats on the committee expressed outrage that, as Robert C. Byrd (Democrat-WV) put it, "the majority has decided to go to war."
Seeking to defuse the increasingly partisan atmosphere, the committee spent the next weeks trying to work out an agreement regarding the conduct of the probe. The investigation was to be led by Richard Cullen of a Richmond, Virginia, law firm, while Robert Bauer would continue to serve as the Democratic representative on the team. Both the majority and minority would be authorized to subpoena witnesses. By mid-May, the investigators were on their way to Louisiana, where a local district attorney had also convened a grand jury to review Jenkins' allegations. At the request of the committee, the Federal Bureau of Investigation also provided agents to assist in the investigation.
The probe continued for several weeks. A June 23 report to Senator Warner by the Richmond attorneys stated their findings that voting records were handled improperly in some Louisiana parishes and that therefore fraud could have occurred. The General Accounting Office reported that its examination of the claims of "phantom voting" found 98 percent to be incorrect. This finding encouraged committee Democrats to announce on June 25 that they would no longer participate in the inquiry, because they felt it had become too partisan and was still not turning up any hard evidence of wrongdoing. This move was significant because the FBI agents could only participate in a bipartisan probe.
On July 9, the committee members met to consider the investigation but failed to agree on whether the inquiry should continue. As the month passed with no agreement, Democrats began threatening to slow or halt Senate business unless the committee officially ended the investigation by July 31. Republicans countered by proposing a continuation until September 9, which would require additional funds since the original $250,000 allocation had been used up.
On July 22, Wendell Ford of Kentucky, the committee's ranking minority member, took the Senate floor to outline the Democrats' view of the case. Summarizing the committee's efforts, he noted, "We have learned that there is no evidence ... of any fraud or irregularity on election day in Louisiana that would have affected the outcome of this election." He urged Warner and the other Republicans to acknowledge that the investigation had turned up no evidence of fraud and to set a firm date to end the investigation.
On July 31, the committee, on a party-line vote of 9 to 7, decided to allow the probe to continue with the necessary subpoena powers. Armed with this renewed authority, Chairman Warner traveled to Louisiana during the Senate's August recess to conduct four days of hearings on the case. Although Warner also asked the FBI to again assign agents to the inquiry, the Justice Department indicated that it could not supply agents for an investigation conducted by only one political party. After collecting massive amounts of data, including material related to possible influence on the election by gambling interests, Warner reported that the committee would need more time to review the documents and to hold an additional hearing in Washington. He hoped to conclude the committee's work in about three weeks.
When the Senate reconvened after Labor Day, the Democrats decided to press for an earlier conclusion. They took advantage of a Senate rule that allows a single senator to prevent a committee from meeting for more than two hours after the Senate convenes or after 2 p.m., and selectively objected to the holding of particular committee hearings. Majority Leader Trent Lott countered by adjourning the Senate for two hours one afternoon to allow an important committee hearing to take place, keeping the Senate in session later that evening to compensate for the lost time. On September 23, as the chairman still failed to set a definite date to conclude the investigation, Democrats blocked most committee meetings.
Finally, on October 1, the Rules and Administration Committee met and voted unanimously to end its investigation of Landrieu's election. In his statement to the committee, Chairman Warner reported that the committee had found "a failure of safeguards and discrepancies in records. It has revealed possible campaign finance violations, although no indication of such violations on the part of Senator Landrieu. It also has revealed isolated instances of fraudulent or multiple voting and improper or duplicate registrations. But it has not revealed an organized, widespread effort to illegally affect the outcome of this election. It has not revealed an organized, widespread effort to buy votes, or to procure multiple votes, or secure fraudulent registrations." Nor was there evidence "to prove that fraud or irregularities affected the outcome of the election. Finally, it has never been alleged, and no evidence has been uncovered, that Senator Landrieu was involved in any fraudulent election activities."
The committee therefore concluded that "the evidence collected to date does not meet the applicable burden to justify further consideration of the amended petition by the Committee, or by the Senate, and the Committee terminates its investigation of the 1996 election for U.S. Senator from Louisiana and directs the Chairman to so inform the Senate." The chairman was directed to prepare a committee report, including minority views, describing the committee's actions and the evidence developed.
Having discontinued the investigation in Senator Landrieu’s favor, the Rules Committee then turned to considering whether the Senate should compensate Landrieu and Jenkins for expenses incurred during the long investigation. On November 5, 1997, the committee failed in an initial attempt to reimburse both Landrieu and Jenkins for part of their legal expenses. The committee voted 5 to 10 against Chairman Warner's motion to authorize him and Senator Ford to grant up to $150,000 to each of them, with three Republicans joining the seven committee Democrats in opposing the motion. The committee next voted 9 to 7 against a proposal by Senator Ford to partially reimburse only Landrieu. Some committee members wondered whether the committee should adopt a policy for the future that the Senate would reimburse no parties in a contested election. In the end, no reimbursement was made.
Senator Landrieu was reelected in 2002 and again in 2008. Woody Jenkins retired as a member of the Louisiana state legislature in 2000. In 2008, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.