Keith Stutes, the respected former assistant district attorney who retired last year and confirmed his decision to leave was in part related to the federal bribery probe of the DA’s office, is taking on his old boss next year.

Photo by Robin May
ALL IN: Former ADA Keith Stutes is challenging his former boss

Stutes' goal is to restore confidence in the position. In an Aug. 23 letter about an upcoming fundraiser, he indicates he will turn the dysfunctional office around and ensure justice is administered in a fair and impartial manner. The candidate, a longtime amateur sports photographer, plans to release this video at Friday and Saturday’s high school Jamboree at Cajun Field. Stutes will make his candidacy official Sept. 5, although he has not confirmed where the announcement will take place. He has already set up a website.

The Lafayette native is viewed by many as 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson’s toughest challenger. His decision to enter the race — Harson is saying he will run again and is raising money — will likely scare off any other potential challengers.

Harson, clearly, is vulnerable. If indeed he does seek re-election after not being challenged in 18 years (he walked back into office unopposed in 1996, 2002 and 2008), he will finally have to answer questions about the ongoing bribery scheme he thus far hasn't had the courage to explain.

As The IND pointed out in its May cover analysis “Fore,” three members of Harson’s staff, including his longtime administrative assistant Barna Haynes, have pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme that went on under his nose for four years. While Harson has not been directly implicated in the conspiracy — which the feds now say was allowed to go on because of a lack of oversight and safeguards on Harson's part — federal law enforcement officials and other seasoned observers of the DA's office seriously entertained the notion that the crimes could have only occurred with his actual participation.

Thus far, there have been five guilty pleas and one indictment. The feds say 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 Williamson then paid Barna $500 for each case (the feds claim she got more than $70,000 for her efforts). Haynes and the other four who copped a plea are scheduled to be sentenced later this year; Williamson's trial date has not been set.

After the DA’s office was searched in February, Stutes launched his own internal investigation and turned the findings over to Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell in May 2012 for potential prosecution (the report is said to point to a high level of ineptitude and potential malfeasance in office on Harson’s part). However, Caldwell’s office announced Aug. 8, more than a year after Stutes sent in his findings, that “no state charges are warranted” from the report. “We are aware that there is an ongoing federal investigation and that the U.S. Attorney’s Office is pursuing the criminal conduct which took place in this matter. Therefore, we consider our file to be closed,” Caldwell’s office wrote in announcing it was washing its hands of the matter.

The IND has had a public records request for the file pending for months; when the AG announced that it had closed the file, The IND again asked for it but the request was, again, denied. “Our file contains information that is related to the ongoing federal investigation,” AG spokeswoman Amanda Larkins wrote in an email response.

Stutes served as an ADA for 28 years, working as chief felony drug prosecutor for eight years, from 1986 to 1994, and as chief of Felony Section II until his retirement in September 2012. During his time as an ADA, he was lead prosecutor in more than 75 felony jury trials, including six capital murder trials. Stutes also worked as a special assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana from 1990 to 1992 and served as court magistrate for the Mayor’s Court in Scott for 12 years, from 1983 to 1995.

Stutes is an instructor at the Acadiana Law Enforcement Training Academy and the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Corrections Officers Training Academy. He also is an adjunct professor, teaching the course Introduction to Criminal Justice at UL Lafayette.

In his Aug. 23 letter, Stutes writes: 

I am writing to share some important news and to personally ask for your participation and support.

After careful consideration, I have decided to become a candidate for District Attorney for the 15th JDC in the election on November 4, 2014. I plan to make a public announcement after Labor Day.  This is a very important decision that is the result of serious thought and prayer, discussions with my wife and children, and civic and business leaders.

I retired early last September after 28 years as an Assistant District Attorney. I worked 25 of those years as a full-time felony prosecutor. I feel the responsibility involved in prosecuting major felony crimes and bringing criminals to justice. The fair and impartial administration of justice is at the heart of our society. Communities must be safe before they can be desirable places to raise families and grow businesses. So it was with a strong sense of regret that I retired early from the DA’s office, realizing that it had ceased to function properly and that I could not fix it in my role as an ADA.

In the last year, I have appreciated the opportunity to spend time with my wife Carolyn, our wonderful daughters and their families. I have appreciated being able to catch up on projects around the house and the yard. I have especially appreciated the time to reflect, and to think seriously about my deepest hopes for our communities here in Acadiana.

I believe I have the experience, qualifications and commitment needed to turn the DA’s office around. I will work hard and I will restore the office of District Attorney to its proper role in the fair and impartial administration of justice. I will be an active, hands-on District Attorney. I will pay close attention to personnel matters. I will provide the leadership required for our prosecutors to do their jobs effectively. I will work with law enforcement and the courts to make our communities the safest and best they can be. This is my personal pledge to you.

There is a clear consensus that new leadership is needed. I realize however, that bringing about important change isn’t easy. I understand that a successful campaign requires a lot of hard work.  

I am committed to running full-time for the next 15 months. I am putting together a state of the art campaign organization with experienced professional help. I am personally investing the time and energy required to raise the $500,000 or more necessary for the race.

I am doing everything I can to make this campaign successful, but I need something from you. I need you to join me in this important effort. I truly can’t be successful without your support, and your family, friends, neighbors and colleagues.

We are holding our inaugural fundraiser on Wednesday, November 6th at the Petroleum Club in Lafayette. The fundraiser is from 6:00 to 7:30 PM.  

(The letter includes information on how to get involved in the campaign and sponsor/host the fundraiser) ...

Thank you for your time and for your serious consideration. I look forward to the opportunity to serve you as your District Attorney.

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