Before District Attorney Mike Harson tees off for a fifth term in office, he should seriously consider what might be coming at him.
By The IND Editors
|Photo illustration by Melissa Hebert|
It’s time for 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson to declare that he will retire when his current term expires at the end of 2014. His absenteeism from office, highlighted by his cow-like daze as recent intra-office catastrophes piled up around him, makes it clear it’s time for him to pursue full time his twin passions of golf and hunting — two distractions on the public nickel that have contributed mightily to his disservice to the public that elected him.
|Chumming it up: Attorney General Buddy Caldwell,
whose office has been sitting for a year on
a report that could have serious repercussions for
DA Mike Harson, attended Harson's April 10 fundraiser at
Harson’s job performance has been marked by such extraordinary examples of bad judgment, outright incompetence and simple laziness that federal law enforcement officials and other seasoned observers of his office seriously entertained the notion that the crimes going on right under his nose — to which three members of his staff have already pleaded guilty — could have only occurred with his actual participation. In other words — the thinking was — no district attorney could be that incompetent. Surely he had to have been part of the scheme his longtime office administrator operated with such impunity. No veteran district attorney could possibly be that asleep at the switch. Ours was.
It would be almost comical if it weren’t for the damage Harson’s caused to the credibility of his office and the disservice his absentee style has done to the morale of those effective and well-regarded assistant prosecutors. We can only imagine how embarrassing and humiliating it was to have the feds converge on the office Feb. 27 last year.
In 1994 voters chose Mike Harson in a special election, a runoff with the late Sue Fontenot, after he’d served as ADA under his mentor Nathan Stansbury for more than a decade.
Despite telling many people his current term would be his last, he’s trying to stick around six more years for all the wrong reasons: the perks and invites that come with being DA. Those who know him professionally say the spirited prosecutor in him died not long after he took over the office. They say he’s indifferent. That he doesn’t care. And they say he offers no guidance to his assistants, nor does he supervise them, because he has no idea what’s going on in his office.
If he does seek re-election, it will likely be an ugly campaign as he surely will not walk into office, as he did in 1996, 2002 and 2008, unopposed. Not this time. And he has only himself to blame.
Let’s start with the ongoing federal probe of the office and the three strikes against his already precarious credibility: Barna Haynes, Greg Williams and Denease Curry. In February 2012, after the feds sifted through files and searched a computer belonging to Barna Haynes — the woman who ran the DA’s office (she had been Harson’s right hand for more than three decades, having worked for him even before he was elected DA), he didn’t so much as bother to gather his staff to tell them what was going on. We’re told that eventually, on the advice of one of his assistants, he hastily called a meeting of the staff but still left them in the dark about what was really happening.
Key staff members had to depend on local media to inform them. Harson didn’t even tell them Haynes wasn’t coming back; they learned she’d resigned Aug. 28 only after Harson told The Advocate.
The feds say for four years Haynes and local private investigator Robert Williamson exploited for personal gain an already flawed program Harson himself developed, asking hapless Judge Ed Rubin to hear all of the cases. Federal prosecutors allege people who got OWIs paid Williamson about $5,000 to make the charge disappear, forever removed from their records, and he paid Barna $500 for each case (the feds claim she got more than $70,000 for her efforts).
In early 2010, ADA Williams and his secretary, Curry, started getting a small piece of the action.
|Former Assistant District Attorney Keith Stutes|
All three pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and face jail time at their sentencing in August.
Williamson, whom the feds say was the mastermind behind the scheme, faces a slew of charges following a federal grand jury indictment, including six counts of bribery, one count of conspiracy, one count of Social Security fraud and one count of making false statements to federal agents.
So where was our DA for the past four years while his office was the headquarters for this elaborate scheme that abused the community’s resources and left the credibility of the office in tatters? How could this happen under your watch, Mr. Harson? The voters who elected you have been waiting for months for an explanation that has yet to arrive.
If Harson doesn’t have the courage to step up and explain it, he’ll certainly face the burning question in next year’s election, when he should be confronted at every civic club, barbecue, fish fry and crawfish boil he shows up for. He should be hounded until he answers.
In the meantime, here’s the rub: the person who may be in a position to force him to finally address those issues already has some of the answers.
While U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley has made it clear the scheme was able to play out for so long due to a “lack of oversight and safeguards” in the DA’s office, this person has more intimate knowledge of Harson’s shortcomings: Former Assistant District Attorney Keith Stutes, the man who worked for Harson nearly two decades before retiring after he conducted his own independent investigation of the office and who may campaign for Harson’s job.
Harson was not truthful when he told The Advocate and this newspaper he asked Stutes to conduct an internal investigation of the office after the feds came calling. Sources in the DA’s office say Stutes initiated that on his own.
Stutes’ report is now in the hands of Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who attended Harson’s April fundraiser and has yet to act on the report. IND Monthly’s ongoing inquiries to Caldwell’s office about the status of the report yield responses like, “the matter is still pending,” or “the matter is under review.”
It won’t be pending forever, and either way it’s probably devastating news for Harson: No matter what happens with the report, it will likely point to a high level of ineptitude if not malfeasance in office.
“Harson’s going to get burned either way,” says Pearson Cross, head of UL Lafayette’s Political Science Department. While Harson has likely escaped federal prosecution, he could be facing state charges if Caldwell takes “the matter” to a grand jury. If Caldwell doesn’t take it to a grand jury, Cross says, it’s a public record and everyone gets to see what’s in it (and decide for ourselves whether politics played into Caldwell’s decision not to act on it).
Let us be clear: Stutes has not decided if he will seek the office. Political insiders tell IND Monthly an opponent would have to raise about $400,000 for this race.
A 28-year veteran of the DA’s office who was widely considered the chief prosecutor, Stutes led the teams that successfully prosecuted the most complicated, high-profile cases in the district, including that of Dr. Richard Schmidt, who in 1998 was convicted of taking blood from one of his HIV-infected patients and injecting it into his mistress. It was the first time in forensic history that viral DNA was used to prove a link between two people with HIV at trial in a criminal case. Schmidt is serving a 50-year sentence for attempted second-degree murder.
Stutes’ September retirement came less than a month after he successfully negotiated the plea deal that sent Brandon Scott Lavergne to prison for the rest of his life for the first-degree murders of Mickey Shunick in May 2012 and Lisa Pate in 1999. Then 60, Stutes was eligible to retire in March 2012 but delayed it after the federal probe was made public so he could conduct his own investigation of the office and again after he was assigned the Shunick case, which could have kept him there for years. Perhaps the most effectively orchestrated prosecution ever handled by the local DA’s office, Lavergne’s plea agreement was reached just 20 days after Stutes and his co-prosecutors secured an indictment for the two murders. (In contrast to his four assistants who suited up in a coat and tie for that emotional and highly symbolic day in court on Aug. 17, Harson appeared dressed in, you guessed it, a golf shirt.)
It’s worth noting that The Daily Advertiser’s April 12 story about Harson’s plans to seek re-election also cited these cases among the office’s biggest prosecutions but by careless omission handed the credit to Harson himself.
A Lafayette Parish native, Stutes is highly regarded as a consummate professional by his fellow ADAs and defense attorneys alike. Both sides say he’s diligent, organized and prepared when he walks into a courtroom.
“I know he is so honest and straightforward that if there was any monkey business [in the DA’s office] — and I’m not saying there was — he would do something about it immediately,” Lafayette criminal defense attorney William Goode told IND Monthly last August when Stutes retired. “He would not stand for it.”
Goode, himself a former prosecutor, went on: “He’s as good as it gets. He’s got it all. He’s tough as nails, but he’s fair and intellectually honest and has a lot of compassion. You can’t ask for more.”
Stutes would likely scare off any other challengers. “I’m strongly considering it,” he tells IND Monthly. “I am angry about the failures by, and the lack of respect for, the office of district attorney. Integrity and responsibility [have me now considering] the possibilities of leaving retirement and pursuing the need for change in the office.”
If Stutes does not seek the office, someone else will. But who? Voters certainly are paying far more attention this time.
“Based on what I’ve been hearing, I’d be surprised if Harson doesn’t have strong opposition,” says former U.S. Attorney Mike Skinner, who heavily weighed whether to challenge Harson in 2008, ultimately deciding the campaign would be too much of a financial strain on his thriving law practice. Skinner’s two children were both in college at the time. Fast forward five years and Skinner is in a different place personally and professionally. While he does not deny his interest in being DA, he’s not saying much at this time. “It’s way too soon for me, personally, to be entertaining those thoughts about running,” he says.
|Former U.S. Attorney Mike Skinner|
Harson and Skinner are Democrats, and Stutes is a Republican, another factor UL’s Cross thinks works in Stutes’ favor. “It helps,” he says. “Right now it’s easier to run in the district [Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes] as a Republican than a Democrat. There’s no way that doesn’t play to Stutes’ advantage.”
Typically, it’s not just hard, it’s nearly impossible to defeat a sitting DA in this state, or anywhere for that matter. Mike Harson has really made that a potential scenario in next year’s election. Debating an incumbent’s conviction rates or the number of plea bargains he signs off on is a hard sell in this kind of race, but “this is a different case,” acknowledges Cross. “These convictions for bribery have struck very close to home and have severely damaged [Harson’s] chances for re-election.”
The public will be reminded of the corruption later this year when Barna Haynes, Greg Williams and Denease Curry are sentenced, and again when PI Williamson goes to trial (who knows what he will say about what Harson knew).
But it’s a challenger who could make mince meat of Harson on the issue. “The bribery [scheme] provides a narrative to the challenger in a race like this that is much more easily understood by the voting public and the voting public relates to it,” Cross says, noting Harson’s opposition will ask, “What kind of DA do we have if this kind of stuff is going on right under his nose?
“It’s a strong argument.”
Harson has been quick to dismiss his involvement and any culpability in the bribery scheme to other local media — the most IND Monthly typically gets out of him is an emailed sentence fragment, like when he told us why he kept admitted felons Williams and Curry on the payroll after learning they were pleading guilty: “Because they were training their replacements.”
What’s undeniable and inexcusable, however, is that for four years he allowed his Lafayette office — and ADA Williams, whom Harson should have been supervising — to be exposed to PI Robert Williamson, a serial suer whose bizarre history with the federal court system (easily accessed by a quick Google search) was revealed by IND Monthly in the March 2012 story, “Not So Secret Cajun Man.” (Williamson's story got even crazier as the investigation progressed.)
Voters should refuse to accept that Harson had no knowledge layman Williamson was doing everything an attorney would typically do for these defendants, and he certainly knows it’s a crime to practice law without a license.
Harson must bear some of the blame for the predicament former ADA Williams is in; Williams will likely be disbarred. He would be the second of Harson’s ADAs to permanently lose his law license. Former assistant J. Floyd Johnson, whom Harson kept on staff after Johnson beat his wife over a three-day period in the mid-1990s, pleaded guilty to tax evasion in November 2010 and was later disbarred. Harson kept Johnson on throughout the federal probe, with Johnson resigning only after being charged in a bill of information.
Dane Ciolino, who teaches criminal law and legal ethics at Loyola University in New Orleans, also isn’t so quick to give Harson a pass. “Under the Louisiana rules of ethics that govern lawyers, lawyers in a supervisory position have an ethical obligation to exercise reasonable supervision over their subordinate lawyers, so obviously if the DA is running the office he should be supervising his employee-lawyers. The rules of conduct make it more than should; he must. It’s an ethical lapse [if he] fails to do so in a reasonable manner.”
There is certainly a level of sentiment in legal and political circles that Harson, who turns 65 next year and has 32 years in the District Attorneys’ Retirement System, is just laying low in the high grass, declaring he is running for re-election and hoping voters will do what, frankly, they often do: forget.
Cross and others tell IND Monthly that before the 2008 election, Harson told them this would be his final term in office. “He indicated to me, ‘One more time,’ and he got it,” Cross recalls.
The UL professor says Harson may have changed his mind because he does not want to leave under a cloud of the federal bribery probe.
Or, he may be biding his time.
“I think he may be waiting to see what happens with the AG,” Cross says. “One would think at his age, if he doesn’t get indicted, he would consider running for the exits.”
Or, better yet, the golf course.