Zurik: Feds open probe of state lawmaker from south Louisiana

Rep. Joe Harrison (R-Gray)
Rep. Joe Harrison (R-Gray)
This Google Maps image outlines a trip between some of the larger populated areas in Harrison's House district.
This Google Maps image outlines a trip between some of the larger populated areas in Harrison's House district.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney's office in New Orleans have launched a federal grand jury investigation into a state lawmaker, following a Louisiana Purchased story from May. FOX 8 News and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune got a copy of the federal subpoena, sent to the La. House of Representatives, that asks for records involving a lawmaker from the Houma-Thibodaux area.

Joe Harrison's job as state lawmaker is considered part time. In his full-time job, he is a financial planner in Napoleonville. He deals with money and numbers.

But after reviewing his campaign and House records, we questioned whether his numbers really add up.

"We sent you a note a month ago and we never heard back," we told him when we met him at the State Capitol back in May.

"On what?" Harrison asked.

"We had some questions for you about expenses and gas receipts and everything."

Harrison laughed and told us, "I don't even remember seeing anything about that."

We showed him the read receipt on the email that we sent; we also sent him a letter through regular post.

After weeks of trying to arrange an interview, Harrison still wouldn't respond to our questions about his spending on gas. We traveled to the Capitol to put our questions to him directly.

"You are the only one who didn't answer us," we explained to Harrison.

"Well, I can't say that it was important on my list," he replied.

It wasn't important to answer our questions then; now federal investigators appear to be asking the same questions.

The feds sent the House a subpoena in July, asking for all "reimbursements requested by and payments made to" Harrison since 2009.

"The federal government is beginning to pay attention to some of the reports that you are presenting," notes Ed Chervenak, a political scientist teaching at the University of New Orleans.

Our investigation found that, in four years, the House - using taxpayer money - reimbursed Harrison nearly $24,892.86 for mileage. During that same time period, he paid another $25,746.70 for gas out of his campaign account.

"It's difficult to kind of get a grasp on the amount of money he is spending on gasoline," Chervenak tells us. "He's spending more on gas in that period of time than the average Louisiana citizen earns in a year."

All totaled, Harrison spent about $50,000 for mileage and gas, for one lawmaker. Remember - his job as a lawmaker is part-time.

"You look at my schedule; it's pretty well documented where I go," Harrison told us.

When we referred to his campaign expenditures for fuel and the near-simultaneous travel reimbursements by the House, he told us, "I didn't look at this. And I'm being honest with you. I'll talk to my CPA, but it's up to them to do that. I actually sent them to the campaign school that they have, in order for them to understand what they were doing."

For the sake of comparison, Dee Richard is a state representative from the Thibodaux area; part of his district borders Harrison's district. House records show Richard did not seek any mileage reimbursement from taxpayers over the past four years. Campaign records show Richard did not spend a penny of campaign money on gas, either.

That's zero dollars of spending for Richard, compared to more than $50,000 for Harrison.

Harrison laughed again when we suggested that that's a lot of fuel money, telling us, "You travel with me and tell me how much travel I do… You can look at the vehicles. I change vehicles at least every two years, because they always get close to a hundred-thousand miles."

Was all of that travel for Harrison's legislature duties? "The majority of it is, right now," he told us in May.

"Let's figure that out by the month," suggested local attorney C.B. Forgotston, in an interview for our earlier story. "That's about $12,000 a year, so he's spending $1,000 a month on gasoline... He may live way down in the bayou. And we don't require them to drive Priuses - he may be driving a Mac truck."

We did the math a little differently. If Harrison drove from his district office in Gray, down to Dulac, over to Morgan City, then to Labadieville and back to his office in Gray - all in the same day - he would drive about 123 miles. To total up to 50,000 miles in one year, Harrison would have to make that drive 406 times – in 365 days.

In that May interview - conducted for our Louisiana Purchased joint investigation of campaign finance with NOLA.com - we wanted to know if Harrison essentially double dipped his gas expenses: paying for gas out of his campaign funds but also charging taxpayers for mileage. We found examples in which the taxpayers paid for mileage for a trip to Houma - but on the same day, his campaign also reported a charge for gas in Houma.

Months after that interview, Harrison never responded in detail to our questions, as he said he would. But Harrison did tell us by phone Tuesday, "As a result of an erroneous news report, I was asked to give some information. I'm fully cooperating and I trust the process will resolve this matter."

Harrison would not say what was erroneous about the reporting.

Chervenak told us back in May, "The only way you can describe that is 'abusive.' That's just outright abuse - taking from the taxpayers, and taking money from your campaign contributors."

The feds' subpoena instructed the House to hand over the records by August 1 at 9:00 a.m.

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