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Zurik: Small town struggles after former mayor's questionable practices

Michael Ragusa during our interview Michael Ragusa during our interview
Independence Mayor Angelo Mannino Independence Mayor Angelo Mannino
Independence, La. is a town in Tangipahoa Parish, with an estimated population of 1,687 in 2014 (Google Maps/U.S. Census) Independence, La. is a town in Tangipahoa Parish, with an estimated population of 1,687 in 2014 (Google Maps/U.S. Census)
INDEPENDENCE, LA (WVUE) -

"I want you to hear Elvis," the former mayor of Independence, La. tells us.

It's not a request we hear often, following an investigative interview.

"Where's Elvis at?" Michael Ragusa asks someone at the restaurant where we conducted our interview. "Tell him to play something for us."

But after our lengthy questioning of this former public official, we were entertained by the town's award-winning Elvis impersonator. He's apparently a regular Friday night performance for Ragusa, the former mayor of this small town in Tangipahoa Parish.

The current mayor, Angelo Mannino, says Ragusa gave friends and business associates favors during his time in office. Mannino took office last year, beating Ragusa in a heated election.

"It's happening all over," Mannino tells us. "Public officials are doing things to benefit themselves instead of benefit their constituents. And I feel like anytime you step over that line, where you're trying to benefit yourself, that's not what you're sworn into office to do."

To get to the heart of the accusations, you must go to a convenience store, the Quick Way Food Mart in Independence.

The store has two water meters. For one year, the meter going into the store was not billed to the store's account. The city only billed for the second meter, feeding the sprinkler system.

So, Quick Way received free water for about a year.

"Probably in the thousands of dollars," Mannino says, "maybe ten, $15,000 or so. Free water."

Quick Way started receiving that free water in November 2015. A month later, then-Mayor Ragusa's construction company, Brunt Construction, applied for a building permit for another Quick Way store in Hammond.

While Quick Way received a break on water, Ragusa's company earned money building another Quick Way store, owned by Jimmy Ballard.

Ragusa acknowledges that he and Ballard are old family friends. "Been knowing him since 1971," he says. "And I would not do anything like that. He would not do anything like that."

An independent audit concluded the free water exceeded $10,000 and said it violated state law.

Ragusa denies wrongdoing, and says he had nothing to do with Quick Way getting free water.

"Did you see a sign on any of [Ballard's] stores for 'Michael Ragusa for Mayor'?" he asks us. "Did you see any of that? I done built five stores for them. Would I risk $800 or $1,200...?"

When we tell him the water cost more than $10,000, Ragusa says, "No, it ain't. It's not more than that... There ain't no way."

Ragusa tells us he doesn't care what the audit or the new mayor found. "The audit is stupid, just like he said about all this other stuff," he says. "I'm not wrong."

But Tulane law professor Joel Friedman says the relationship between Ragusa and Quick Way raises questions.

"This is the kind of thing that got Mayor [Ray] Nagin in trouble," Friedman says. "You make contracts, public contracts with people with whom you have some relationship. It doesn't have to be a familial relationship. It can be a business relationship, it could be an in-kind transfer, where I as the mayor give something advantageous to you and in exchange you hire my company to build something for me, which promotes my own personal business. This sort of self-dealing is so patently against the public ethics, but also against state law."

According to the new mayor, the breaks on water bills led to a huge hole in the town's budget.

We examined the monthly water bill for Doran Shrimp Processing in Independence - once Ragusa left office, Doran's bill rose from $446 to $17,000 in just a few months.

Another example is Lallie Kemp Medical Center. Its water bill ranged from a few thousand dollars a month down to less than $500 while Ragusa was in office, then jumped to as much as $20,000 each month afterward.

"That's a lot of money from the town," Mayor Mannino tells us. "That's money that could have been paying, helping pay back these loans that we have. You know, tens of thousands of dollars, all that, it adds up."

When the current mayor took office, the town was collecting money from just 650 meters. Now, that count is up to 857.

Essentially, more than 20 percent of the water users in Independence were getting free water.

The new mayor says water bill collection has increased since he's been in office. But Ragusa disputes that.

"That's a lie," he says.

Records show, in January 2016, the town collected $54,000 in water payments. A year later, after Ragusa left office, collections top $91,000.

Mannino says the situation put Independence on the verge of bankruptcy. "It was causing the town to basically not be able to pay its bills," Mannino says.

The former mayor says, in many cases, the town estimated the water usage instead of reading a meter.

When we ask Ragusa why he didn't meter all water usage, he first tells us, "It wasn't my responsibility to meter them at that time."

Then he says, "It doesn't make any difference. The meters were not all working at this time... We put temporary meters in."

Each resident that opens a new account for water service in Independence has to give the town a $150 deposit. The new administration says they can't account for at least $6,000 of that money.

Mannino tells us his staff found "no receipts of it being deposited in the bank."

So, where did the money go? 

"Well, he ought to trace it," Ragusa says of his successor. "I don't know why he can't."

He says he doesn't believe anyone took the cash. "If they can't find it, they ain't looking for it," Ragusa says.

The former mayor and current mayor know each other well.

"His father and my mother were brother and sister," Mannino says.

And while the mayor insists he has no hard feelings toward his first cousin, Ragusa has his own take.

"He just brags about everything," Ragusa says. "He's one of these guys that, when you go hunting, he caught, he kills the most rabbits. When you go fishing, he catches the most fish, the biggest fish. Something like that, you know. That's the kind of guy he is."

Mannino says his concerns focus solely on what Ragusa left the city. In office, he says, Ragusa failed to pay into the state retirement system for his employees. And that left the town with a nearly $900,000 debt.

"The mayor is full of [expletive] and you can tell him I said that," Ragusa counters.

Ragusa says the mayor before him failed to pay into the system, too. "I said, well, just continue doing what you've been doing," he recalls telling staff. "And that's what they did."

But the state retirement board says that may not be true. Before Ragusa took office, Independence paid retirement for 11 to 13 employees. When Ragusa took office, it declined in 2014 and 2015 to zero. But since the new mayor has taken office, the number is back up to 10 to 11.

"He just didn't think it was fair... to the Town of Independence," Mannino recalls, describing Ragusa's decision not to pay into the system. "Didn't pay it the whole eight years he was in there."

The retirement board sent 10 letters to Ragusa, asking him to pay into the system. At one point they wrote, "The fact that you have chosen to ignore this account is causing a hardship for your employees and costing your town additional money."

"I blame the CPA on it," Ragusa tells us now.

Ragusa, now retired from public life, says his cousin is exaggerating. "He'll say anything in the world," he says.

But Mayor Mannino says Ragusa left the city broke. "My thing is, the ones that weren't paying could afford to pay," he tells us, "and the ones that can't afford were struggling to pay their water bills."

Ragusa spends his time now running his construction company and listening to his favorite performer.

"I have done so much for this town," he says. "And I don't need anything that this town has got. I'm in the construction business. You know, we've probably got $12 million, $13 million worth of work... I don't need to take anything from anybody, you know? I don't need that. All I'd want to do is something good for the town. I don't want to try to steal anything. I'm not a stealing person. You can ask anybody in town that."

Nonetheless, the new mayor says he wants someone to investigate those allegations, as he turns around the financial nightmare his predecessor left Independence.

"This town used to be a town where everybody knew everybody," Mannino says. "Everybody was kin to everybody and helped each other. And some things that happened, I don't think, was a help to anybody in town, it was just to help out certain people, you know, benefit from it."

To clarify, the current mayor doesn't think Ragusa had anything to do with the missing $6,000 in cash; he thinks someone else in Ragusa's administration did.

We reached out to Quick Way,  Doran Seafood and Lallie Kemp for a comment; none responded.

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