Freshman Rep. Richard A. Tonry (D-La.) asked a House panel yesterday to dismiss charges that he won his seat through "widespread vote fraud" in which he is alleged to have been a participant.
Tonry's appeal was made through his lawyer, John Martzell, during a three-hour session that was marked by angry shouting, gavel-banging and occasional outbursts of laughter.
Rep. Mendel J. Davis (D-S.C.), chairman of the three-member House Administration special subcommittee that is looking into Tonry's case, said after the hearing that he would take the request for dismissal under advisement. He did not indicate when he would issue a ruling.
The case stems from a Democratic primary race in Louisiana's First Congressional District last Oct. 2, which Tonry won by 184 votes. Tonry's opponent, former New Orleans City Councilman James A. Moreau, accused Tonry of winning the race through vote theft.
A federal grand jury subsequently looked into the allegations andlater indicted 23 of Tonry's supporters on charges of falsifying as many as 400 votes in the primary race.
The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Tonry's victory. However, 16 of those persons indicted by the federal grand jury in New Orleans have pleaded guilty to stealing at least 390 votes in Tonry's favor. Another has admitted stealing about 25 votes for Moreau.
Tonry went on to win the general election by nearly 5,000 votes. He was sworn in Jan. 4.
Martzell, Tonry's lawyer, argued yesterday that the House would be setting "a most serious precedent" if it decided to overturn the election on the basis of the primary race challenge. Though the House had occasionally reviewed primary elections, no sitting House member has ever been unseated because of a primary dispute.
Tonry's lawyer said the charges against him were politically inspired and that, in any case, it would be most difficult to determine who truly benefited from vote fraud - some of which everyone agreed occurred in the primary race.
For the House panel to conduct a thorough investigation, it would have to look at "every one of the 100,000 votes that were cast" in the primary election, Martzell said.
With Tonry and Moreau looking on, the session became heated when Gilbert Andry, one of Moreau's lawyers, revealed that he also is an assistant district attorney for St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes (Counties).
The district attorney's offices in both parishes are investigating Tonry on the vote-fraud charges. Leander Perez Jr., whose family backed Moreau's election, is district attorney in both parishes.
"Did you find (vote) fraud while you were acting under the guise of an assistant D.A., or as private counsel to Mr. Moreau?" Davis demanded.
Sandry replied that he found vote fraud in the Tonry camp while acting in both capacities. He said Louisiana law allows him to act both as a district attorney and a private lawyer.
Andry then declared that "it makes no difference" in what capacity he was investigating the allegations of vote fraud. "I'm telling you that the evidence that I found are the facts," he said.