Lafayette DA Update

Harson, Stutes locked in bitter campaign for Lafayette DA

Richard Burgess| rburgess@theadvocate.com

LAFAYETTE — Keith Stutes recalled a meeting with Mike Harson shortly after the FBI searched the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Lafayette in February 2012.

Stutes, a retired prosecutor who is the first person to challenge Harson for the district attorney’s seat in 20 years, said he was shocked to learn federal authorities were investigating bribery allegations in the office.

What’s more, Stutes said, the bribes were in connection with what he called a “secret program” he had never heard about that allowed DWI defendants to have their charges quickly resolved and expunged.

“I confronted Mike with that and basically pleaded with him to stop that process,” Stutes said, adding that the incident tested the loyalty he had given Harson during his long career working for him.

Harson remembers things differently.

“That’s a lie. He never came and talked to me,” he said. “That was not his style to talk to me at all.”

Spending on the campaign this year totaled nearly $720,000 as of Sept. 25 — $420,306 from Harson and $299,101 from Stutes, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state.

The one issue that looms largest — the issue that Stutes said prompted his retirement after 28 years as a prosecutor and was a major factor in his decision to challenge Harson — is the bribery scandal that has tarred the reputation of the District Attorney’s Office for the past two years.

Five people have pleaded guilty in the federal probe, including three of Harson’s former employees, for their role in arranging favorable plea deals for DWI offenders in return for bribes.

The alleged mastermind behind the operation, Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson, is still awaiting trial.

Federal prosecutors have alleged that in return for gifts and payments of cash, District Attorney’s Office employees allowed the defendants to participate in a program in which criminal charges were quickly swept through the system if they successfully completed certain probation requirements, such as driver’s safety classes, substance abuse treatment and community service.

Harson has not been identified as the target of a federal investigation, but federal prosecutors wrote in court filings that the scheme was carried out without the DA’s knowledge because of a “lack of oversight and safeguards.”

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