L AFAYETTE — Before Keith Stutes decided to run against longtime 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson, his only political experience was a bid for student government while a college freshman in the 1970s.
“I did not win,” said Stutes, who met with more success Tuesday when he unseated Harson with 53 percent of the vote in the incumbent’s first election challenge in 20 years.
“Not being a seasoned politician, I didn’t have any expectations,” Stutes said. “I was humbled by the returns.”
Stutes, 62, retired in 2012 after a 28-year career as a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office. He returns there Jan. 12 to take the place of his old boss and oversee prosecutions in Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes.
Stutes said he already has begun meeting with staff.
“It’s just a process of educating myself about what the current situation is in the office,” he said.
Stutes said he has no plans for “wholesale firing and replacing everyone in the office,” but staff attorneys and other employees can expect a more business-like operation, more hands-on supervision and greater accountability.
“It’s a new administration. It’s a new leader. It will be a matter of who jumps onboard with me and who can’t,” Stutes said. “I’m going to be firm but fair.”
Stutes ran a campaign that focused sharply on the need for greater accountability, for a better system to ensure criminal cases don’t fall through the cracks and for restoring respect to the office following a bribery scandal that tarnished the last two years of Harson’s administration.
Five people, including three of Harson’s former employees, pleaded guilty to federal charges for their roles in arranging favorable plea deals for DWI offenders in return for bribes of cash and gifts.
Harson was not implicated in the probe, 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.”
Given his campaign message, Stutes said, he knows the public is going to expect him to deliver on promises of accountability, respect and a more tightly run office.
The District Attorney’s Office is not in disarray by any means, he said, but it is need of fine-tuning.
Stutes said there likely will be more staff meetings than employees are accustomed to as he implements new policies. And in a change from years past, he said, each of the three parishes in the 15th Judicial District will have an administrator responsible for the daily operations of the office.
“Most companies operate that way,” he said.
An obvious advantage Stutes has going in is his history with the office. He spent much of his professional career there and has been gone two years.
“I know everyone, most everyone, involved,” he said. “It’s re-evaluating and placing the best people in the most appropriate position.”
He also said he might need to bring in additional staff, depending on his review of workloads.
Stutes said he plans to meet with all staff in the coming weeks to the lay the groundwork for the smoothest transition possible when he walks back into the District Attorney’s Office on Jan. 12.
He might never have retired from his work there two years ago had he not been disenchanted with the office as the bribery scandal unfolded under Harson.
“I would still be working today and certainly would still be working at something,” he said. “When I was younger, I thought 62 was old. Now, I think it’s far from old.”
Harson, in a brief emailed response to a request for comment on the election outcome, wrote: “Only that I thank all my supporters for their encouragement and support. I wish my opponent well and I look forward to the future.”