‘Secret Cajun Man' too ill for trial?

by Leslie Turk

The alleged mastermind behind the bribery scheme that went on for four years under DA Mike Harson's nose isn't just schizophrenic, bipolar and recovering from mini strokes; he now says he has cancer.

In November Robert Williamson's new criminal defense attorney, Thomas C. Damico of Baton Rouge, successfully petitioned the federal court for a continuance of his client's trial, which had been set for Dec. 16.

Robert and Sonya Williamson

Williamson, the alleged mastermind behind the bribery scheme that went on for four years under District Attorney Mike Harson's nose, 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.

Before Williamson was indicted Feb. 28, five others involved in the scheme, including Harson's longtime administrator Barna Haynes, pleaded guilty.

Damico said in court documents he had "verified through medical authorities" that his client is in need of immediate medical care and would be unavailable for trial, prompting U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote to grant the continuance. It's highly unlikely Foote would have granted the request without medical proof of Williamson's condition.

In asking for more time, Damico, who is Williamson's second criminal defense attorney, also said he had been informed that the discovery in this case contains thousands of taped phone conversations and other information that he had not yet received.

Williamson's first criminal defense attorney, J. Michael Small of Alexandria, tells The IND he withdrew from the case about a month ago. He would not say why.

The pretrial conference is now set for Feb. 14, and the trial will begin March 10. Haynes and the other four defendants who pleaded guilty are scheduled for sentencing April 11 beginning at 9 a.m.

While the court record does not indicate the nature of Williamson's illness - though in past court filings he says he is schizophrenic and bipolar and recovering from mini strokes - The IND has confirmed through a source close to the case that "Secret Cajun Man," as private investigator is known, has cancer.

A year ago three members of Williamson's family, including his wife Sonya (read more about her here), filed a petition for interdiction in district court, citing his mental incompetence to handle his affairs. On Dec. 17, 2012, Williamson's family, at his request, asked for power of attorney and to be appointed his curator, saying in the court filing that he suffers from schizoaffective disorder and bipolar type, "a severe and debilitating mental infirmity," and had recently suffered mini strokes. But by January the family had a change of heart - or change of strategy. On Jan. 23 they asked to terminate the interdiction, saying it was "currently excessive" and is "no longer necessary to care for the person and property of Robert T. Williamson." They asked District Judge John Trahan to dismiss the matter in its entirety, and Trahan obliged. Read more here.

Attorney Damico did not return The IND's phone call last week, and the woman answering the phone at his office Tuesday said he is in trial this week. The IND was unable to confirm the type of cancer Williamson has; a source close to him, however, tells The IND the private eye indicated he has three to six months to live.

U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley declined to comment on Williamson's medical status or whether it will affect his ability to stand trial but did say her office is "prepared to go to trial on this case."