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National Perspective | POLITICS

BEARS, Bluster and a Hunt for Bogus Votes in Louisiana

September 02, 1997|GARRY BOULARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW ORLEANS — Thomas "Papa Bear" Miller--freelance bail bondsman, political organizer extraordinaire, convicted felon--long ago figured out how to navigate the tough streets here that fan out from the wharves. Anybody who had a political agenda was well advised to check in with his organization, aptly named BEARS, which could spring into action on relatively short notice.

"When I sign on for a candidate, I will do anything for them," Miller boasted. "I can put up 1,000 signs in a single night or tear your opponent's down."

But now Miller is trying to navigate even more treacherous waters, and he is having serious second thoughts about his prospects. "Maybe I shouldn't have gotten involved in this whole big mess in the first place," he said.

The "mess" is the U.S. Senate investigation into possible voter fraud and intimidation in last November's Senate race between Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Woody Jenkins. Landrieu won by just 5,788 votes out of more than 2 million cast.

Jenkins, a state lawmaker since 1972 with the strong support of the Christian Coalition, took his claims of a fixed election to the Senate Rules Committee and hired Miller to help him find people in the inner-city precincts of New Orleans who would testify that they committed or witnessed voter fraud.

Miller, like he has so often for his clients, came through. He said he found plenty of illegalities, including voters accepting money from political operatives, voting twice or using false names to vote. Such activity, Miller suggested, contributed to the massive 100,000-vote margin Landrieu got coming out of New Orleans, just enough to offset Jenkins' lead in the rest of the state.

It's no coincidence, Miller said, that his troubles began after Jenkins hired him. Orleans Parish Dist. Atty. Harry Connick brought an indictment against him on a charge of second-degree battery for an incident that took place before the election. Connick also made Miller the target of a grand jury inquiry into claims that witnesses were bribed to say they took money to vote for Landrieu.

Connick and Miller have their own history. Connick and Landrieu were the principal recipients of the get-out-the-vote effort in November conducted by New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial's political organization, LIFE, which has frequently been at war with BEARS.

Groups like LIFE and BEARS "go into the toughest precincts and amass fantastic vote totals for their candidates," said George Amedee, who teaches political science at Southern University at New Orleans. "They may do things that are right on the edge as far as what is legal, they may hire people with criminal records. But they get their vote out and win elections for the candidates they back."

Morris Reed, Miller's attorney, contended: "If Papa Bear had not come forward to help Woody Jenkins, he would not be in all of this trouble today. Papa Bear has become notorious because he told the truth."

Actually, Miller is notorious for other reasons as well: the pending battery charge against him is the second involving his companion, Sheryl Gilbert. He has been convicted on charges of manslaughter and battery, and in 1993 was given a 30-month sentence for attempted second-degree murder.

Miller's rap sheet has become one of Landrieu's most powerful assets: "If this is the kind of person Woody Jenkins is using to argue his case for voter fraud, then you really have to wonder about the caliber of the entire investigation," said Gina Warner, a Landrieu aide.

Jenkins said he has handed over to Senate investigators boxes of documents proving that City Hall employees were forced to campaign on election day, that rented vans and buses hauled likely Landrieu voters to the polls in violation of state laws, and even that several casinos in Louisiana gave checks to LIFE workers.

But Senate Democrats are dug in on the issue, and it is unclear how hard Republicans will fight for Jenkins when the Senate returns to work today. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) argued that there is "no tangible evidence of fraud." Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), a member of the Rules Committee, concluded that with all the publicity, Miller may be the biggest winner in the election dispute.

Not according to Miller. "Right now I'm facing jail time because of all of this crap. That doesn't make me feel like no winner."

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