LAFAYETTE — A trial that would have delved into a bribery scandal at the District Attorney’s Office just as District Attorney Mike Harson faced re-election on Nov. 4 has been delayed until December.
Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson is accused of soliciting cash fees from drivers charged with OWI, then using some of the money to pay off employees of the District Attorney’s Office to secure favorable plea deals.
Five others already have pleaded guilty in the federal probe, including three former employees of the District Attorney’s Office.
Williamson had been set for trial on Oct. 20 in a case that would have played out in the days leading up to the Nov. 4 election.
Harson is being challenged by retired prosecutor Keith Stutes — the incumbent’s first contested election in 20 years.
Harson has not been charged in the federal investigation, but the bribery scandal is an unavoidable campaign issue.
In a ruling filed into the court record this week, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote pushed the trial date back to Dec. 8, citing the need to give Williamson’s attorneys more time to work through the evidence, which includes thousands of recorded telephone calls.
Foote had expressed concerns during a meeting with attorneys earlier this month about potential difficulty finding an impartial jury in Lafayette, considering the publicity surrounding the case and a trial set to begin just two weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
Neither concern was mentioned in her ruling to push back the trial date.
Harson has maintained he knew nothing about the bribery scheme in his office before the federal investigation began.
“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,” Harson wrote in a statement last year.
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.