The cash flowed freely: $500 here, $1,000 there, month after month. Sometimes there were gifts, too: Business suits, bicycles, an autographed New Orleans Saints cap.
In exchange, another drunk driver in Acadiana walked out the door with a clean record and his driver’s license in hand.
The payments were part of an elaborate bribery scheme at the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office that has rocked the criminal justice community, a widening pay-for-privilege scandal that has already brought down a local prosecutor and two secretaries and left many wondering who will be the next to fall.
In all, close to $1 million may have been squeezed over four years from drunken driving defendants anxious to get out of trouble, and at least $75,000 or more in bribes is believed to have been paid to courthouse insiders willing to help them do it, according to a Daily Advertiser review of drunken-driving cases and court records.
The records suggest more than 100 defendants from Lafayette, and possibly Acadia and Vermilion parishes, were caught up in the scheme, operated by a man identified so far in court records only as an “unnamed co-conspirator,” and that dozens of drunk-driving cases appear to have been scrubbed completely from courthouse records.
The review has uncovered new details about the scheme and raised questions about the role a veil of secrecy cast over drunk-driving cases by the district attorney’s office may have played in creating an environment that allowed special treatment for people who had the cash to pay for it.
As the U.S. Attorney’s Office continues to press its bribery case against former employees of the Lafayette Parish District Attorney’s Office, the number of confessed co-conspirators has increased to three. And that small circle will likely continue to widen as the results of a two-year federal investigation are revealed.
The greatest outrage lies in the irony that these crimes have been committed by members of an agency, part of the 15th Judicial District, charged with bringing criminals to justice.
The Justice Department has made it clear that District Attorney Mike Harson was never a target of the investigation and he maintains that he had no knowledge of the crimes being committed in his office.
We have no reason to doubt his word and understand that he can’t possibly personally supervise each and every case.
But this happened on his watch.
Harson reiterated to The Daily Advertiser on Friday his unwillingness to speak any more on the matter.
Links to court documents: