LAFAYETTE — Longtime 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson and challenger Keith Stutes were almost neck-and-neck for the first four months of this year in raising campaign cash for the Nov. 4 district attorney’s race, according to campaign finance filings this month.
Harson, who has not faced a challenger since first elected in 1994, raised $107,075 from Jan. 1 to April 28, just slightly ahead of the $105,600 raised by Stutes, who retired from the District Attorney’s Office in 2012 after a 28-year career as a prosecutor.
Overall, Harson still has a larger war chest, much of it built up last year — $344,989 in funds on hand at the end of April, compared with $180,615 for Stutes.
Harson wrote in an email that “I am quite pleased as to my fundraising and feel very comfortable as to future fundraising.”
The new campaign finance filings come as the Stutes campaign is publicizing the results of a recent poll showing the challenger with an edge over Harson.
According to information from the Stutes campaign, Southern Media and Opinion Research queried 400 likely voters on May 5 and May 6, asking, “If the election for district attorney were held today, would you vote for Mike Harson or Keith Stutes?”
Thirty-eight percent of those responding chose Stutes, 31.1 percent chose Harson, and 30.8 percent were undecided, according to results provided by the Stutes campaign.
Stutes has a ready-made campaign issue — a federal investigation of a bribery scheme at the District Attorney’s Office — and when the pollsters asked about the candidates again after mentioning of the scandal, the percentage supporting Stutes jumped to 45.7 percent, Harson’s numbers fell to 27.1 percent, and 27.3 percent were undecided.
The second time the question was asked, the candidates’ political affiliations were also given — Democrat for Harson, Republican for Stutes.
“These strong results show that we are reaching more voters with our message of new leadership,” Stutes said in a written statement. “There is a real hunger for leadership that will set a higher standard, and make our criminal justice system operate the way it is intended to.”
Still, the poll gave Harson a slightly higher overall favorability rating.
For Harson, 49.2 percent rated him as favorable, 28.7 percent as unfavorable, and 22.1 percent didn’t respond either way.
For Stutes, 48 percent rated him favorable, 9.6 percent rated him unfavorable, and 42.5 percent didn’t respond either way.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, according to the Stutes campaign.
Harson declined to comment on the poll, saying he has yet to see detailed information about how it was conducted or who responded.
The federal probe of the bribery scheme at the District Attorney’s Office is expected to continue to play out in the local media as the campaign unfolds.
Five people have pleaded guilty in the case, including three former employees of the District Attorney’s Office.
Among them was Harson’s longtime office administrator, Barna D. Haynes, who admitted accepting $55,000 in bribes over four years to help set up special plea deals for criminal defendants, mainly in DWI cases.
Charges are still pending against the Lafayette private investigator accused of helping organize the bribery scheme, Robert Williamson.
He is set for trial Oct. 20, just two weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
Harson has not been implicated, but federal prosecutors wrote in court filings that the bribery scheme was carried out without his knowledge because of a “lack of oversight and safeguards.”
In prior statements, Harson has said he had no knowledge of or involvement in the illegal activity.
“In regards to the question of the federal investigation, the federal prosecutors have on several occasions pointed out that I was never a target in that investigation. That to me says it all,” Harson wrote in a statement last year. “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.”
The 15th Judicial District takes in Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Wednesday, May 14, 2014, to correct the initial reference to the time period covered by the campaign finance reports file this month.