LAFAYETTE — A bribery scandal in the local court system has hurt 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson’s re-election chances, but it’s hard to say whether it will be the longtime incumbent’s undoing on Nov. 4.
That was the assessment offered by University of Louisiana at Lafayette political science professor Pearson Cross at Monday’s meeting of the Acadiana Press Club.
“I don’t want to judge how this race is going to go,” Cross said of the contest between Harson and challenger Keith Stutes, a retired prosecutor with 28 years’ experience, much of it working for Harson.
The election is set for Nov. 4; early voting begins Tuesday and ends Oct. 28.
Harson has not faced a challenger since first elected in 1994 and likely would have coasted back into the job had it not been for a federal investigation of a pay-for-plea-deal scheme that has been in the news since the FBI searched the District Attorney’s Office in February 2012.
Five people have pleaded guilty in the federal probe, including three former employees of the District Attorney’s Office, for their role in arranging favorable plea deals for OWI offenders in return for bribes.
The alleged mastermind behind the operation, Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson, is still awaiting trial.
Harson has not been implicated.
“By in large, in the public mind, he (Harson) was on an easy way back before this scandal,” Cross said.
Cross said Harson’s incumbent advantage has taken a serious hit, and a major scandal can often push out even longtime office holders.
“In those cases, I think the challenger is often rewarded,” he said. “… That can really take away the edge of the incumbent.”
But Cross said Harson, having been in office two decades, cannot be easily dismissed as a candidate, even with a major scandal hanging over his re-election bid.
“Mike Harson has been around a long time, and he has made a lot of friends and connections,” Cross said.
Another factor is that the 15th Judicial District takes in three parishes — Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion — and while news coverage of the scandal has been strong in Lafayette, local newspapers in Acadia and Vermilion parishes have paid less attention.
The Press Club event on Monday was initially scheduled as a question-and-answer session featuring Harson and Stutes, but Harson did not accept an invitation to attend.
Stutes told the Press Club that he did not know about the bribery scandal until he learned the FBI had searched the District Attorney’s Office and that he decided to retire when he felt Harson was not doing enough to address the issue.
“In 2012, my loyalty to Mike was tested,” Stutes said. “I left in 2012 because that test failed.”
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.