LAFAYETTE — Retired prosecutor Keith Stutes ousted longtime 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson on Tuesday, ending a tenure of two decades for Harson that over the past two years has been plagued by a bribery scandal.
Stutes took the election with 58,829 votes, or 53 percent, to Harson’s 52,799, or 47 percent, overtaking the incumbent in his first election challenge since 1994.
“I don’t know if it was just the need to clean house or a need for change. I’m certain the scandal had some kind of effect on it, but there are other issues. I don’t know if I could single out a particular thing. It was a close race. I think it was just that people wanted something different, and I offered that: new and better,” Stutes said Tuesday night.
The 15th Judicial District takes in Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes, and Stutes’ victory was due largely to his popularity among Lafayette voters.
He won overwhelmingly in Lafayette Parish — the largest portion of the district — edged out Harson by a few hundred votes in Acadia and actually lost to Harson in Vermilion Parish.
“I don’t think the scandal was significant for voters in Acadia and Vermilion in the same way it was in Lafayette,” University of Louisiana at Lafayette political science professor Pearson Cross said.
But Cross said it was likely the bribery scandal that did in the incumbent.
“If Harson had not had the scandal, I think he would have been re-elected easily,” he said. “That was the really the thing that brought him down.”
Stutes launched his campaign in September 2013 after retiring from the District Attorney’s Office the year before, in part for what the challenger said was disenchantment with Harson over a federal probe of bribes paid to District Attorney’s Office employees in return for favorable plea deals for DWI defendants in Lafayette Parish.
That scandal provided the fodder for what became one of the most active and contentious campaigns Acadiana has seen in years, as candidates went at each other on social media and in a string of television and radio ads.
They spent heavily.
The two campaigns logged expenses just shy of $1 million from Jan. 1 through Oct. 15, with Harson doling out $522,516 and Stutes spending $400,722, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state.
Stutes, who served as prosecutor for 28 years, hit Harson hard for the bribery scandal and talked of the need for more businesslike management and accountability in the District Attorney’s Office, including the need to better track criminal cases that Stutes said were slipping through the cracks.
The challenger picked up early endorsements from two former U.S. Attorneys, Mike Skinner and Donald Washington, both of whom have taken public swipes at Harson for the bribery scandal.
Five people have pleaded guilty in the federal probe, including three of Harson’s former employees who acknowledged 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.”
“This whole plan was a circumvention of the intent of the law. The whole thing just smelled. It smelled like a fix,” Stutes said in an interview before the election.
Harson said he felt betrayed by the employees involved in the bribery scheme, but he maintained all the plea deals were proper and acknowledged he authorized each one. He defended the deals as second chances offered only to first-time offenders and only after reviewing their driving records and criminal histories.
Harson characterized the bribes as “gifts” accepted by his former employees for the pleas he had already authorized, not a quid-pro-quo situation, and that he could not have known about the bribes because they were all given outside the office.
“It was basically a violation of my trust,” he said in an interview before the election.
Advocate correspondent Seth Dickerson contributed to this report.