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Ex-lawmaker charged in corruption probe

Author(s): Peter Sminkle Date: May 10, 1996 Section: city des

Prosecutors accused former state Rep. Michael Russo of extortion Thursday, making him the first lawmaker to be charged in a broad federal probe of corruption in the state Legislature. Russo extorted $150,000 out of a waste disposal company that runs a landfill near Livonia in his former district, prosecutors said.

Russo, 48, is to enter a plea in federal court this morning. On Thursday, he signed a document waiving his right to have a grand jury consider whether the charge should be brought against him.

Russo declined to comment as he left the courtroom. His attorney, Thomas Damico, refused to say how Russo will plead.

“I guess we’ll have to show up to find out,” Damico said.

The alleged extortion plot is not linked to the key allegations of the FBI probe – that video poker industry interests tried to bribe legislators through campaign contributions and other means.

But Russo was one of the legislators who received campaign contributions from Slidell video poker truckstop operator Fred Goodson, a central figure in the probe, according to FBI affidavits released last fall. Goodson has not been charged.

In addition, the waste company, Western Waste Industries Inc., sought assistance with its landfill permit from former Gov. Edwin Edwards, his son Stephen Edwards, and former state Sen. Larry Bankston, the FBI affidavits said.

Russo, a Democrat from Livonia, cut short his re-election campaign last fall and dropped out of the race.

Russo also was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a New Orleans case in which more than 20 people were convicted of helping the Mafia take over two video poker companies.

In that case, former state Rep. Buster Guzzardo pleaded guilty last week to running an illegal gambling business.

In a bill of information filed Thursday in federal court in Baton Rouge, prosecutors said Russo extorted Western Waste from about December 1993 to September 1994.

The company paid the $ 150,000 to Russo because it feared “economic harm,” prosecutors said.

Western Waste feared that if Russo did not get the money, he would turn against the company’s effort to obtain permits for the landfill in

The testimony came when a former Western Waste official pleaded guilty to misprision – or concealment – of a felony.

Former Western Waste vice president Vernon Hizel admitted that he concealed Russo’s extortion. Hizel arranged to pay $150,000 to buy a three-acre piece of property near Grosse Tete from Russo, the FBI agent said.

Russo had bought the property for $80,000 in 1988, prosecutors said.

Although Western Waste concluded the properly was of no use to the company, Hizel agreed to make two $75,000 payments to Russo, prosecutors said.

Hi/el made the second payment in September 1994 only after Western Waste obtained the permits it needed, the FBI agent testified in explaining the evidence against Hizel.

DEQ officials contend that Russo did not improperly influence the permitting process. However, state Sen. Tom Greene, R-Maringouin, on Thursday said DEQ should investigate the permitting process “from start to finish.”

DEQ officials involved in the permitting process should not participate in the investigation so it will be untainted, Greene said.

Greene also said DEQ officials have told him that the agency would have no recourse if the permit was issued under undue influence.

Greene said he plans to introduce legislation that would allow the state to reconsider a permit if someone commits a felony while seeking to obtain the permit.

Copyright 1996 Capital City Press, Baton Rouge, La.