Feb. 21, 2014 11:00 AM

A fundraiser co-chaired by former U.S. attorneys from both sides of the political aisle could signal the end of Mike Harson's long grip on the D.A.'s office.

A fundraiser co-chaired by former U.S. attorneys from both sides of the political aisle could signal the end of Mike Harson's long grip on the D.A.'s office.

By Leslie Turk and Walter Pierce

That former Assistant District Attorney Keith Stutes is picking up endorsements is little surprise. Stutes was a competent, respected prosecutor - a straight shooter who shepherded some of Lafayette's most prominent criminal cases to satisfactory - from the public's perspective - conclusions.

Photo by Robin May  
Former U.S. Attorneys Donald Washington, left, and Mike Skinner, right, are supporting Keith Stutes for district attorney  

But the most recent development in Stutes' campaign to unseat his former boss, D.A. Mike Harson, is unprecedented in Lafayette politics: two former U.S. attorneys, one appointed by a Republican president and the other by a Democrat, put their muscle behind a candidate for district attorney. The election is Nov. 4.

Republican Donald Washington (2001-2010) and Democrat Mike Skinner (1993-2000) are co-chairing a "Raising the Bar" fundraising event for Stutes on May 1.

This could be the perfectly appropriate time for Harson to cry "Mayday!"

"What you're seeing here are two people reaching across the party divide to make common cause against the re-election of a four-time incumbent; that is extraordinarily significant in my view," says Pearson Cross, head of UL Lafayette's Political Science Department. "And these are people who are in good positions to understand the nature of his office, and their words would carry some weight as a critique of the job he's done. This has to be, for Harson, very, very discouraging that he's gotten this kind of concerted bipartisan opposition."

Harson is considered extremely vulnerable, as his former longtime administrator, Barna Haynes, was a central figure in a bribery scheme that went on for years within earshot of his office.

Haynes has already pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing, while the alleged mastermind behind the scheme, Robert Williamson, is set to go to trial Aug. 18 (the trial was twice delayed). He is charged with six counts of bribery "for operating a pay-for-plea scheme that garnered favorable treatment for defendants charged with state violations of operating while intoxicated," one count of conspiracy, one count of Social Security fraud and one count of making false statements to federal agents. He pleaded not guilty.

Before Williamson was indicted Feb. 28, four others involved in the scheme pleaded guilty including one of Harson's assistant prosecutors. Like Haynes, they are awaiting sentencing.

That so-called "Pay for Plea" scandal that enveloped Harson's office, says Cross, is Stutes' best chance at unseating the incumbent - that and, as always, money.

IND Media file photo  
District Attorney Mike Harson has made a lot of connections in his two decades in office.  

"If they can raise enough money to get on the media and let people know about the scandals, this would look bad for Mike Harson returning to office," Cross says, with a caveat: "If they can't and the race remains sleepy, then I think there's a 50/50 chance he'll return to office."

In a letter to prospective supporters touting the May 1 fundraiser, Washington and Skinner, both of whom are in private practice in Lafayette, explain their participation: "It is time for new leadership in the District Attorney's office," they write. "As former U.S. Attorneys, we understand the importance of confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice system. We also understand that public integrity is not a partisan issue - it affects Democrats, Independents and Republicans alike."

Harson, a Democrat, has faced only one electoral challenge in his two decades in office - he is seeking a fifth term - so his campaign skills might be a little atrophied. But incumbency and his political ties, Cross adds, will likely play to his benefit.

"Having that D behind your name and being in office as long as he has are both going to be positives for him in terms of getting votes," the political scientist explains. "Democrats faced with a Republican and Democrat running, not knowing anything about the race, will probably pull the lever for the Democrat. And also, Mike Harson has been around for a long time and has had a chance to befriend many people - make friends  - and many of those people are certainly going to remember him and aren't going to be persuaded by whatever charges may have come out of the OUI investigation."

But Harson will have to overcome an unprecedented unity among political parties within the opposition.

"We are writing to personally ask you to join us in an important campaign to elect new leadership, and to restore the office of the District Attorney to its proper role in the administration of justice," Washington and Skinner write in that fundraiser announcement. "Keith can and will bring strong, ethical leadership to the DA's office."

"As former federal prosecutors, Don and Mike understand the importance of public integrity in the criminal justice system," Stutes says. "I look forward to working together to bring my message of new leadership to the voters of the 15th Judicial District."

It's looking like a hard row to hoe for Harson, and Cross, who wonders whether the incumbent "still has the fire for the kind of race that he's probably going to need to run to win," predicts a nasty contest this fall: "I think the most potent hand that the opposition has is the scandal in Harson' office, and sooner or later they're going to have to use it and when they do it's going to get ugly."

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