LAFAYETTE — A federal judge is questioning whether publicity about a bribery scandal in the District Attorney’s Office could make it difficult to pick a fair jury for the alleged ringleader’s trial.
The trial is set for just two weeks before District Attorney Mike Harson faces his first challenger in 20 years as he seeks re-election Nov. 4 as top prosecutor for the 15th Judicial District.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote has set a meeting with attorneys in the case on Thursday to discuss the issue of jury selection.
According to court minutes, the judge at a meeting last week expressed concerns about finding an impartial jury in Lafayette, where the bribery scandal has been making headlines since news broke of the FBI searching the District Attorney’s Office in February 2012.
Over the past two years, five people, including three former employees of the District Attorney’s Office, have pleaded guilty in a federal probe of bribes paid in exchange for favorable treatment in OWI cases.
Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson is accused of setting up a scheme, allegedly working for a cash fee then using some of the money to pay off employees of the District Attorney’s Office to secure special plea deals.
His trial is set for Oct. 20, and the judge has set aside two weeks for the case, meaning it could be wrapping up just as the Nov. 4 election rolls around.
Harson has not been charged in the investigation, but the federal case will certainly explore the inner workings of his office.
The timing couldn’t be better for Harson’s challenger, retired prosecutor Keith Stutes, who already has capitalized on the bribery scandal as campaign fodder.
What’s more, evidence in the case could include a report prepared by Stutes, who did his own internal probe related to the OWI pleas while still working for the District Attorney’s Office.
Stutes, who worked for 28 years as a prosecutor, retired in September 2012 as the federal case was unfolding.
So far, Stutes has not been subpoenaed to testify in the federal case, according to a statement issued through his campaign office on Tuesday.
His campaign on Tuesday also released remarks from two former U.S. attorneys, Mike Skinner and Donald Washington, endorsing Stutes and taking swipes at Harson for the bribery scandal.
Washington said, “We need someone who will not sit in his office while someone 15 or 20 feet away is taking money. We cannot have that,” referencing the bribes paid to employees in Harson’s office.
Skinner said he was “really fed up with a district attorney who, rather than cooperating with the FBI, is being investigated by the FBI.”
Harson has never been identified as the target of a federal investigation, and federal prosecutors wrote in court filings that the bribery scheme was carried out without his knowledge because of a “lack of oversight and safeguards.”
Harson has maintained he had no involvement in any of the wrongdoing and knew nothing about it before the federal investigation began.
“In regards to the question of the federal investigation, the federal prosecutors have on several occasions pointed out that I was never a target in that investigation. That to me says it all,” Harson wrote in a statement last year. “In regards to the claims that I must have known that these events were going on, I can only say that, to my knowledge, any transfers of goods or money that were made occurred away from the office. Therefore, I would have had no way of knowing about it unless one of the participants would have told me, which they absolutely never did.”
The scheme operated from 2008 to 2012, according to court filings by prosecutors, and employees of the District Attorney’s Office received more than $70,000 in cash, along with gifts that included bicycles, clothing and an autographed New Orleans Saints hat.
The 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office serves Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes.
Harson’s most recent political campaign was in 1994, when he won a special election to succeed Nathan Stansbury, who had stepped down from the district attorney’s post before his term expired because of illness.
Since then, Harson has won re-election three times without opposition, in 1996, 2002 and 2008.