As he took the oath of office as the new 15th Judicial District attorney, Keith Stutes vowed Thursday to work with his staff to raise the standards of the office and, in turn, to strive to earn their loyalty.
“I will not and do not demand your loyalty. … Loyalty must be earned,” he said. “I will ask you to be loyal to the office because the office is bigger than the people who occupy the office.”
In the Nov. 4 election, Stutes won 53 percent of the vote in the district’s three parishes — Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion — to oust his former boss, Mike Harson, who had not been challenged in the 20 years he held the office until Stutes took him on.
Stutes is the 28th district attorney for the 15th Judicial District, said Daniel Landry III, who was sworn in on Thursday as Stutes’ first assistant DA and served as master of ceremonies.
Since the first DA was sworn in, in 1843, there have been many who have held the office with the last name of Mouton, Voorhies or Putnam, and now there’s the first Stutes, Landry quipped before Stutes placed his hand on the large, white Bible held by his wife, Carolyn, that the couple received 41 years ago as a wedding gift. Inside its pages hold the hallmarks of their life together: children and grandchildren born, dates of first communions and other rites of passage, including the final ones of those they’ve loved.
Asked to swear to uphold the Constitution and the additional responsibilities of his office, Stutes responded with a resolute “I absolutely do.” His alteration of the typical response of “I do” roused laughter from the crowded courtroom that swelled again when Landry echoed the same response when he was sworn in as first assistant DA.
As the more than 30 assistant district attorneys stood together as one to accept their oaths of office, in concert they made the same vow: “I absolutely do.”
Stutes isn’t unknown to his new employees. He spent 28 years as a prosecutor and was the district’s chief prosecutor when he retired in 2012, a few months after a federal probe into the DA’s Office’s handling of OWI cases had begun. At least five people, three of them Harson’s former employees, pleaded guilty for their parts in a bribery plot to fast-track OWI offenders through a plea deal program. The trial of private investigator Robert Williamson, accused of orchestrating the bribery scheme, was delayed due to the expected publicity about the case prior to the November election. While Harson hasn’t been implicated in the probe, federal prosecutors wrote in court filings that the bribery scheme was the result of a “lack of oversight and safeguards.”
On Thursday, Stutes didn’t directly reference the scandal but alluded to it as he remarked on Landry’s appointment as first assistant DA, a first for the office, through a requirement laid out in state law, Stutes said.
Later, he said his path to the district attorney’s seat was a rocky one.
“I did not come the easy way. It was a year of chaos,” he said.
During the ceremony, Stutes thanked his parents and family for their support and credited his father, Aaron Stutes, who died in 1983, for teaching him the “razor-thin line between right and wrong.”
“His notion was to be fair to all,” Stutes said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.