Only one judge handled all of the OWI cases the feds used as the basis for establishing how at least three people conspired to pull off a major bribery scheme in the 15th Judicial District: Edward Rubin.
|Though he is not named in court documents, which make it clear a single judge handled all of the tainted OWI cases at the heart of the federal bribery probe involving District Attorney Mike Harson's office, a review of "immediate 894s" in parish courthouse records reveals that District Judge Ed Rubin presided over the sessions. Some so secretive that
they were held in chambers, the cases were never
on a public docket.
In case after case reviewed by The IND, going back to early 2011, Rubin’s name is a constant on the immediate 894 cases — those questionable OWI prosecutions now revealed to have been at the heart of a bribery conspiracy involving private investigator Robert Williamson; District Attorney Mike Harson’s former secretary, Barna Haynes; and Assistant District Attorney Greg Williams. Haynes, 58, and Williams, 44, along with Williams’ 46-year-old secretary, Denease Curry, have all pleaded guilty to accepting bribes paid by someone listed as co-conspirator #1 in court documents but identified by The IND and referred to throughout this story as private investigator Williamson.
Those “immediate 894” sessions, which allowed defendants to have their records wiped clean after performing a list of court requirements — community service, substance abuse counseling and driver safety training — were never listed on any public docket. Instead, Judge Rubin would often interrupt his criminal docket and bring the alleged OWI offenders into court. Making this all the more secretive, some of the sessions were conducted in his chambers.
“The individual cases selected for the ‘immediate 894 pleas’ were withheld from, or removed from, the normal OWI docket,” according to Haynes’ plea agreement. “Instead, special court sessions were held to handle the ‘immediate 894 cases’ at a time and place separate from the normal OWI docket. A number of these sessions were held in the judge’s chambers.”
In the plea agreements, the feds says the immediate 894 sessions were exclusively for Williamson’s clients. This is how it worked: At Haynes’ request, Curry would contact the district judge’s chambers to set up the session, giving the names of the OWI defendants who would be pleading guilty. On the day of the session, private eye Williamson would escort his client to ADA Williams’ office, which is also Curry’s work area, and Williams would explain to the defendant what was about to happen in the session. The OWI defendant would show up with all of the certifications that purportedly confirmed he had completed the necessary requirements, one from SOAR (Smart Options for Addiction Recovery), one from Safety Premiere Training and a third from an entity like Acadiana Outreach or Goodwill Industries. Those documents were filed into the court record at the time of the guilty plea (the minutes of the sessions sometimes included a stipulation by the state that the defendant had a blood-alcohol content level below .15g even when his BAC was well above it or he refused the test), and Rubin would sign off, instantly granting the 894 motion to dismiss the conviction, which served as an acquittal. The defendant now had a clean slate and would have his driving privileges immediately reinstated.
U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley’s office would not comment about whether co-conspirator #1 (Williamson) was ever in the judge’s chambers when these sessions were held. Court insiders say private investigator Williamson’s presence in chambers would have been a red flag to any judge — he is not an attorney — who would likely have shut the plea agreement down. There was never a defense attorney or probation officer present in the sessions.
Rubin did not return phone messages or an email to his secretary seeking comment on his handling of these cases.
A spokeswoman for Finley said the U.S. attorney “has no comment at this time” on why Rubin’s name was excluded from the plea agreements. Those agreements, however, make it clear that the same ADA, Greg Williams, and same district judge handled all of the cases.
Could Rubin’s name have been left off for the same reason private investigator Williamson’s was excluded, because of the likelihood he will be charged with a crime? It’s doubtful. If Harson is escaping prosecution — being asleep at the wheel is apparently not a crime — it’s hard to imagine that Rubin did anything illegal.
Unethical? Possibly. Bad judgment for a judge? Definitely.
Interviewed by The Advocate about the immediate 894 process for an April story, Rubin said he was approached by the DA’s office to handle the immediate 894 pleas about two years earlier — the story did not indicate whether Harson himself made the request — and was unsure how many he’d handled. Rubin estimated that it had been more than 20. In reviewing court files in the parish courthouse, The IND found between 50 and 60 immediate 894 cases from 2011 to early 2012; all were handled by Rubin.
Asked by the reporter whether he thought the request to handle the cases in this manner — off the public docket or in chambers — was unusual, Rubin said only this: “The one thing I found bizarre was that I didn’t see any blacks or minorities in the ones they asked me to hear.”
Nothing else about these furtive sessions in his chambers made him suspicious? Seriously?
For his part, Harson told The Advocate that the majority of people might not realize the immediate 894 is available to them. “I will do it in some cases, but I don’t advertise it,” he said.
He didn’t have to.
Robert Williamson and Barna Haynes got the word out for him. But it’s still not clear how they solicited these “clients.”
OWIs issued by the Lafayette Police Department are typically handled by the city prosecutor, Barna Haynes’ husband, Gary. But The Advocate found that Harson’s office routinely requested to take over some of those cases. From 2009 to 2011 the DA asked for 86 of the cases, 55 directly from the police department, which kept a log that included the offender’s name and who the file was sent to at the DA’s office. The newspaper found that 28 of the files — 26 of them in 2011 alone — were sent to initials B.H. — Barna Haynes.
Private eye Williamson got hundreds of thousands of dollars for his efforts over four years, federal investigators say — despite that court costs were roughly $370 and the fine only $350 — and then spread a little bit of it around: $55,000 to Haynes (though the feds say it was upwards of $70,000), $1,600 and gifts to Curry, and gifts and $500 in cash to Williams (who will likely face disbarment for his role in the conspiracy). In court documents the feds say Curry overheard defendants saying it was costing them $5,000 to get into the program. Read more about Williamson here
But who else was Williamson paying? We now know at least three people the feds reference in the plea agreement when they say Williamson paid “personnel within the District Attorney’s Office,” but investigators also say he paid “employees with entities associated with the OWI program in 15th Judicial District Court.”
The paperwork for some of the OWI defendants who supposedly did community service through Acadiana Outreach was fabricated — at least one certification was signed by Elaine Crump indicating a defendant had completed community service even before he was arrested. And some of the documents were signed by her after she was terminated from Acadiana Outreach.