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.”
Such recriminations have been a steady undercurrent in a bitter campaign between two men who have spent much of their professional lives working just down the hall from each other.
The two candidates have spent heavily on television and radio spots in recent months, and Stutes has gone on the offensive. He’s called out Harson for the bribery scandal, for a boost in salary while that scandal unfolded and for questions over the district attorney’s allowing some criminal cases to fall through the cracks for want of a robust tracking system.
It’s been a long time since so much mud and money were slung in a local election.
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.”
Bribes or no bribes, Stutes said, the plea deals were suspect.
He said the pleas often came so quickly that DWI defendants never had their licenses suspended. Meanwhile, no one was checking to make sure the defendants were completing their requirements — in some cases they were not — and there seemed be no criteria for who was allowed to make the special plea deals.
“This whole plan was a circumvention of the intent of the law,” Stutes said. “The whole thing just smelled. It smelled like a fix.”
Harson laments the bribes but still defends the plea deals, acknowledging he authorized each one. He said the pleas were, in effect, a second chance offered only to first-time offenders and only after reviewing their driving records and criminal histories.
Harson said he would likely still offer the plea deals in question if not for concern over the negative publicity and assuming he could find a judge to approve them.
When the bribery scandal broke, only one judge was still signing off on the pleas.
As of now, no one will.
“I have no doubt that the program is legal,” Harson said.
Harson characterized the bribes as “gifts” accepted by his former employees for the pleas he had already been authorized, not a quid-pro-quo situation.
Many of the bribes were given outside of the office and would not have been flagged in an audit because, unlike embezzlement, there was no impact on the finances of the office, he said.
“I have a hard time understanding how I was to detect that,” Harson said. “… It was basically a violation of my trust.”
Stutes contends the bribery scandal goes to the heart of what he sees as one of the main problems in the District Attorney’s Office: a lack of supervision.
Stutes hit the scandal hard in a recent radio and TV spots, where he labeled the pleas “secret justice” and added allegations of a “secret pay raise.”
The pay raise in question came in 2012, when Harson boosted his salary by $12,200, bringing it up to about $154,000 annually just as the bribery scandal was unfolding.
The Lafayette City-Parish Council at a public meeting signed off on a budget revision needed for the raise.
The document that came before the council included paperwork that indicated Harson would get a raise, but the raise was not discussed publicly at the time.
“Yes, I did request the raise, and I think it was proper,” Harson said, arguing the salary is fair considering the size and reach of the office he oversees.
The latest dust-up in the campaign revolves around the second-degree murder case against Kerry Wayne Bertrand, 44, who is accused in the 2013 death of his stepdaughter, 20-year-old Skylar Credeur, in Rayne.
A Stutes campaign radio spot talks of how Bertrand had been in jail before the killing on a molestation accusation made by Credeur but was freed because the DA’s office did not file formal charges against him within the legal time limits.
Credeur was found dead in her home days later.
“It’s a serious failure in his inability to track cases,” said Stutes, who has repeatedly pointed to what he sees as a systemic problem of managing and tracking cases at the District Attorney’s Office.
Harson said his office has a tracking system, but the molestation case against Bertrand had issues. He said his office was late getting the report on the case from State Police, and there were questions about the credibility of the accusations.
It was the kind of case Harson said should have been brought to the grand jury for a decision on whether to pursue charges, and there was no indication at the time that Bertrand posed a threat of physical harm to anyone.
“We are not clairvoyant. We have to make calls on the facts and circumstances available,” he said.
Stutes’ ad itself became an issue when Harson responded with a television ad featuring Skylar Credeur’s mother, Alidia Credeur, criticizing Stutes for using her daughter’s case as campaign fodder.
“Is your ambition worth the pain you are causing my family?” the mother asked in Harson’s ad.
Stutes said he carefully considered referencing the murder case in his campaign ad but believed it was an appropriate way to raise the issue of case tracking and accountability.
Stutes noted his radio ad did not mention the names of anyone involved in the case — although the details make it clear that the ad is referencing Skylar Credeur’s killing — but Harson’s ad featured a lengthy statement from the mother of the victim.
“My question is, who is exploiting whom?” Stutes said.
How the bribery scandal and other questions will impact Harson’s bid for re-election on Nov. 4 is an open question.
“By in large, in the public mind, he was on his easy way back before this scandal,” University of Louisiana at Lafayette political science professor Pearson Cross said in a commentary on the race at last week’s meeting of the Acadiana Press Club.
A major scandal can dull the edge of an incumbent, he said, but it also is difficult to unseat a longtime officeholder.
“And Mike Harson has been around a long time, and he has made a lot of friends and connections,” Cross said.
For his part, Harson said he feels like he is unfairly having to answer for the actions of his full staff over his 20 years in office — a very big target for his opponent, who must answer only for his own actions.
“I just hope people can flesh through all the inaccuracies and the smoke being thrown and look at the positive things I’ve done,” Harson said.
He points to what he calls his open-door policy, efforts to reach out to schools, pretrial diversion programs giving offenders rehabilitation and a second chance, and his charity work in the community.
Stutes said he sees plenty of room for improvement at the District Attorney’s Office, including the need for a more business-like management structure and more accountability in general.
But at the core, he said, his campaign is about restoring credibility.
“Mainly, I want to bring respect back,” Stutes said.