Mon, Jan 21, 2013
This is an article from the weekend edition of The Daily Advertiser. We are still not convinced that other top officials won’t be implicated.
The cash flowed freely: $500 here, $1,000 there, month after month. Sometimes there were gifts, too: Business suits, bicycles, an autographed New Orleans Saints cap.
In exchange, another drunk driver in Acadiana walked out the door with a clean record and his driver’s license in hand.
The payments were part of an elaborate bribery scheme at the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office that has rocked the criminal justice community, a widening pay-for-privilege scandal that has already brought down a local prosecutor and two secretaries and left many wondering who will be the next to fall.
In all, close to $1 million may have been squeezed over four years from drunken driving defendants anxious to get out of trouble, and at least $75,000 or more in bribes is believed to have been paid to courthouse insiders willing to help them do it, according to a Daily Advertiser review of drunken-driving cases and court records.
The records suggest more than 100 defendants from Lafayette, and possibly Acadia and Vermilion parishes, were caught up in the scheme, operated by a man identified so far in court records only as an “unnamed co-conspirator,” and that dozens of drunk-driving cases appear to have been scrubbed completely from courthouse records.
The review has uncovered new details about the scheme and raised questions about the role a veil of secrecy cast over drunk-driving cases by the district attorney’s office may have played in creating an environment that allowed special treatment for people who had the cash to pay for it.
Federal investigators have said District Attorney Mike Harson is not a target of the investigation, although they say a “lack of oversight and safeguards” in his office allowed the scheme to occur. But prosecutors have declined to comment on whether local judges — including District Judge Edward Rubin, who handled many if not all of the expedited cases — may have been involved.
The investigation is ongoing and additional charges are expected, U.S. Attorney Stephanie A. Finley said this past week.
The co-conspirator has been identified as the man behind the bribes, and evidence suggests that Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson, whose home was searched last year by federal agents, may be involved.
Harson, meanwhile, says he has no plans to make any internal changes to his office’s handling of OWI cases, saying the system used — except for the bribes — was “perfectly legal.”
“I got exactly what I would have gotten had the plea been taken under any other format,” Harson said in response to an email from The Daily Advertiser.
The scandal centers on a special process set up by Harson in 2008 — with agreement from an unnamed judge — to fast-track the resolution of certain offenses, primarily drunk driving cases.
Using a state statute known as Article 894, Harson created an “immediate 894″ plea process in which an accused drunken driver could complete community service, a driving course or other court requirements quickly before entering a plea.
With documents in hand to show the court requirements had been met, the offender would then appear before the judge in his private chambers, separate from the handling of other OWI cases, to make a plea in the case, according to court documents filed by federal prosecutor John Luke Walker.
The conviction would then immediately be overturned and the case expunged, allowing the defendant to leave with a clean record and with his driver’s license in hand, according to the court records.
The cases — known as “immediate 894s” — were generally handled within a month of arrest, far quicker than the year or more that other OWI cases can languish in court, The Daily Advertiser found.
Only a fraction of the cases made the fast track, however. A review of nearly 300 OWI arrests in Lafayette Parish over a three-month period in 2011 found that about 2 percent were moved through the system as “immediate 894″ cases. All of those were handled by Judge Rubin without the presence of a defense attorney, according to court records.
Another 10 percent of the cases, however, may have been completely expunged from the record. The Daily Advertiser found no courthouse records at all for a number of OWI arrests made by Lafayette police in early 2011.
Harson told The Daily Advertiser he had no written qualifications for selecting people for an immediate 894 case and no written agreement with any judges on how to administer the immediate 894s.
Rubin did not return a call for comment this week.
Cash and gifts
The cards began to fall on the scheme about a year ago when federal agents moved in to seize records from the district attorney’s office, including longtime secretary Barna Haynes’ computer, and Williamson’s home. Haynes was placed on leave and resigned in August.
On Monday, Haynes, 58, of Lafayette, pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of conspiracy and admitted accepting up to $55,000 in bribes in exchange for “favorable resolutions of criminal cases” in the 15th Judicial District. Walker, the federal prosecutor, said he believes Haynes accepted more than $70,000 in bribes over the years.
Then on Thursday, Assistant District Attorney Greg Williams, 44, of Lafayette, and his secretary, Denease Curry, 46, of Broussard, also pleaded guilty in federal court.
Williams, who handled most of the traffic and OWI cases for the 15th Judicial District Court, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery, and admitted accepting $500 in bribes and gifts that included suits, bicycles and the New Orleans Saints cap.
Curry, who told prosecutors she initially raised question about the payments with Haynes, pleaded guilty to one count of misprision of a felony, which is having knowledge of a felony but failing to report it.
All three have been released on personal recognizance bonds and are awaiting sentencing. Haynes and Williams face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Curry faces up to three years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
Williams, who has a private law practice, could also lose his law license, and he was terminated Friday as a contract adjudicator for the Lafayette Consolidated Government’s parking program.
Williams has also served as one of a several contract attorneys overseeing sessions in which drivers protest tickets handed out through the use of red-light cameras and special traffic vans that are placed throughout the area. He has not been used in that capacity for at least two years, however, after failing to show up on several occasions, transportation officials said.
Haynes was at the helm of getting the cases expedited through the courts, according to court records.
Haynes was Harson’s longtime secretary and administrative assistant, and had worked for him in his private law practice before he became the district attorney in January 1995. Like many trusted assistants, she was given a great deal of authority in the day-to-day operations of the office and often handled the transfer of cases out of city court that needed special treatment.
In 2008, Haynes apparently began transferring cases from city court to the 15th Judicial District for the “immediate 894″ handling without Harson’s knowledge, according to court records.
Prosecutors said she then “facilitated the selling of ‘immediate 894 pleas’ and other favorable dispositions” by pocketing cash payments from the unnamed co-conspirator, whom prosecutors have noted is not an attorney.
According to court records, some drunk-driving defendants indicated they had paid $5,000 or more to the unnamed man to have their cases moved over for special treatment.
The co-conspirator would then give his client’s name to Haynes, who would find out if that person’s file was in city court or district court.
Most of the OWI cases were in city court, since first- and second-offense OWI arrests made by the Lafayette Police Department are handled in city court rather than state district court. Haynes’ husband, Gary Haynes, prosecutes OWI cases in city court, and federal prosecutors have declined to comment on whether he, too, is involved in the scandal.
Federal prosecutors say Haynes received $500 per case for those she transferred over for “immediate 894″ handling. She also was paid for preparing expungement documents and for helping facilitate the resolution of other cases, both felonies and misdemeanors, including OWI and drug cases, according to court records.
During one exchange cited in court documents, Haynes met with the co-conspirator on Friday, Dec. 16, 2011, at his home to pick up documents regarding client cases. He then drove to a local market to get cash and met her at a local post office to hand over $2,000.
The two met later at his residence on Feb. 2 and Feb. 27, 2012, when he handed over payments of $500 and $1,500, respectively.
Once the cases were transferred, Haynes would contact Curry, who contacted the judge’s staff to schedule the special immediate 894 sessions with Williams. Curry also regularly received copies of documents that prosecutors said “purportedly” certified that the defendants had met the required conditions of community service or completion of special courses.
Curry started receiving payments in 2010 and eventually received $1,600 in bribes, records show.
The investigation is continuing, and an unnamed number of letters have been sent by the U.S. attorney’s office alerting people that they are targets in the case, according to Finley’s office.
But Finley has made it clear that federal agents don’t think Harson had anything to do with the bribery scheme. In fact, Haynes cleared her boss when confessing to federal prosecutors.
“Haynes advised that Mike Harson was not aware, nor did he authorize any of the 894 cases for which she received payment,” Finley wrote in an email to The Daily Advertiser.
Still, all eyes are on Harson as the growing scandal engulfs his office.
Herb Larson, a Tulane University Law School professor and defense attorney, said it’s entirely possible that Harson was unaware of the bribery scheme because he’s probably too busy to micromanage every employee and every case.
“The head DA is never going to get involved with the paperwork at that level,” Larson said. “At some point, you just have to trust your subordinates.”
The professor said he also does not see any indication that Harson is guilty of malfeasance.
“The standard is, did they know or should they have known,” Larson said. “In this type of situation there is no reason for the DA to have known.”
Harson served as an assistant district attorney for 14 years before being elected district attorney in 1994. He ran unopposed in 2002 and 2008, and will face re-election again next year if he chooses to run.
This isn’t the first scandal to hit the DA’s office under Harson’s watch. In June 2011, longtime Assistant District Attorney Floyd Johnson was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of tax evasion.
Prosecutors accused Johnson of failing to file income tax returns from 2003 to 2008, hiding assets from the IRS and lying to the IRS while serving as a prosecutor.
In 2004, even before his troubles with the IRS, Johnson was arrested on a misdemeanor simple battery charge for allegedly abusing his wife. That charge was dropped and he was allowed to continue working as an assistant district attorney.
Staff writer Tina Marie Macias contributed to this report.