Lafayette lawyer calls OWI pleas in bribery case ‘illegal'

by Leslie Turk

Go-to OWI lawyer Barry Sallinger plans legal challenge to Harson's now infamous "immediate 894s." The Advocate reports Friday that on Thursday attorney Barry Sallinger told City Court Judge Doug Saloom that he plans to file a lawsuit challenging the prior plea of his client, Ryan Dean Stelly, one of potentially 100 or so OWI defendants whose cases were handled by Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson rather than by an attorney.

Robert Williamson

The potential suit is the latest wrinkle in a messy bribery scheme federal investigators say went on from 2008 to 2012 in District Attorney Mike Harson's office, a conspiracy that resulted in three guilty pleas from former employees of the DA's office, three from former employees of Acadiana Outreach Center and the Feb. 28 indictment of the alleged mastermind, 64-year-old Williamson.

Williamson (aka Secret Cajun Man) faces a slew of charges, including 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.

Sallinger's potential legal challenge would center on at least five of those OWI defendants who have since been arrested again on OWI charges. The lawyer is set to argue that those defendants should not face the harsher second-offense penalties because they previously were denied the right to an attorney, instead paying approximately $5,000 to Williamson to have their cases handled via an "immediate 894" program created by District Attorney Mike Harson. Harson's version of the program, which was  discontinued amid the controversy because district judges have since refused to hear the cases, was based on Article 894 of the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure.

Sallinger, who told The Advocate one potential problem is a real attorney could have looked at the earlier DWI cases and possibly raised successful legal challenges to the original charge, says if the Stelly lawsuit is successful, the ruling could apply to all the plea deals that Williamson allegedly arranged. It remains unclear just how many cases were part of the years-long bribery scheme.

Read today's Advocate story here.

Read more about Williamson et al here.