Amid OWI scandal, Harson sneaks in a raise

by Leslie Turk

The feds converge on your office, seizing records on several employees as part of a pay-for-plea investigation. WWYD? If you're Mike Harson, you give yourself a $12k raise.

In February 2012 Mike Harson experienced what had to be an unimaginably demoralizing incident for any sitting district attorney. The feds showed up at his office to execute search warrants, seizing computers and records on several employees, including Harson's longtime office administrator, Barna Haynes, and an assistant district attorney, Greg Williams, as part of an investigation into a pay-for-plea scheme involving mostly OWI defendants. Two weeks later Harson put Haynes on unpaid administrative leave; she never returned and is likely going to jail.

In late 2012, while his office was under federal
investigation, DA Mike Harson boosted his
LCG pay 29 percent.

Five months later the embarrassment was compounded when Harson's top assistant DA, Keith Stutes, said he was retiring - in part due to the federal probe and what Stutes himself found after initiating his own internal investigation of the DA's office amid the bribery allegations (findings he turned over to the attorney general's office for potential prosecution of Harson on state charges of malfeasance but has never disclosed publicly). Stutes confirmed his impending departure less than a month after successfully negotiating the plea deal that sent Brandon Scott Lavergne to prison for the first-degree murders of Mickey Shunick in May 2012 and Lisa Pate in 1999 - perhaps the most effectively orchestrated prosecution ever handled by the local DA's office. Stutes, as anyone reading this story knows, later decided to challenge Harson for DA.

So what does Harson do back in 2012? He uses Stutes' retirement as an "opportunity to reevaluate my salary" and concludes that he deserves a $12,200 raise ($14,000 with benefits).

Yes, he did.

And there's more. Harson also makes the decision to conceal the fact that he is giving himself a raise. In a memo dated Oct. 16, he writes to City-Parish Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley (emphasis is ours):

I am requesting that the attached Ordinance be presented to the Lafayette City-Parish Council at its November 6, 2012 meeting.

The Ordinance and Budgetary Revision is to reduce the use of the Parish General Fund Prior Year Fund Balance in the amount of $19,594 to fund promotions due to the retirement of an Assistant District Attorney.

Should any further information be required, please do not hesitate to contact my office.

On the surface, it looked as if Harson's request would save the parish general fund money, and that's just what everyone contacted for this story thought was happening. No one knew it was going to put more money into the embattled DA's pocket.

To be fair, attached to Harson's letter to Stanley was a fine-print manning table (I'm talking approximately 6-point type, which, it should be noted, is customary) that lists the adjustments for unnamed ADAs and on the fourth line lists "District Attorney/District Attorney" and shows Harson giving himself a 29 percent raise. Local government public records reveal that Harson's salary from LCG alone increased from $41,995 in 2012 to $53,954 in 2013, boosting his total salary (he's also paid from Acadia and Vermilion parishes and gets about $12,000 annually from the criminal non-support division) to $153,000. (Note that the figures in the above chart, obtained from Harson's disclosure reports to the Louisiana Ethics Administration, vary from the figures obtained from LCG and show a 36 percent increase in his LCG salary from 2012 to 2013. According to these figures, the LCG bump caused his overall pay to increase 11 percent.)

Even the wording of the ordinance itself does not indicate that Harson will get a raise, noting that the $19,594 will fund salary increases due to the retirement of an ADA and references the "pertinent documents which are attached." Read the ordinance and accompanying documents here.

Harson, in emailed responses to The IND, appears to confirm his bump in pay had nothing to do with Stutes' retirement, except that he decided it was a good time to assess his own pay. Harson certainly does not indicate that he took over any of Stutes' duties.

Harson says as a result of Stutes' retirement, Chris Roberts was hired in December 2012 as an ADA at a lower salary than Stutes, freeing up some funds to be used elsewhere in the office. "At that time Ms. Patsy Oliver, who was assigned to our Zoned Area Prosecution Unit, had served her probationary' period, so to speak, and was in line for a salary adjustment. I did so by raising her pay by $5,000," he says. "Also, Roger Hamilton had been moved from Crowley to Lafayette to assume the duties of Mr. Stutes. In addition, because he was also continuing to handle some matters in Acadia and because of the quality of his work, I felt that a raise for him was also in line and did so by $6,000."
Continues Harson, "Realizing that these funds were simply reallocations of monies already budgeted and approved and would have no negative impact upon the City-Parish budget, I took the opportunity to reevaluate my salary."

Harson says in 2009 the membership of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association approved guidelines for salaries of elected district attorneys based upon a number of factors including the size of the office and scope of responsibilities. "In reviewing those guidelines it appeared that the suggested minimum salary for someone in my position would have been $156,961," Harson says. "At the time my salary was approximately $142,000."

Harson says he also took into consideration the salaries of other elected officials in the area and looked at some salaries of other district attorneys around the state both in similar sized jurisdictions and smaller ones before determining he deserved a $12,200 increase. "That brought my salary to approximately $152,000, which is still somewhat below the minimum guideline figure. I point out that the sum Lafayette Consolidated Government is contributing to my salary is approximately $53,000. This equates to about one-third of my overall salary and appears to be proportionate based on population, etc."

And Harson says there was nothing improper about how he presented the redistribution plan in the memo. But why not disclose that in the letter to Stanley, we asked.

"That memo to Dee is more or less a perfunctory thing since the actual action is really reflected in the Personnel Action Request and Authorization forms," Harson says. "The memo is just to let them know that we are taking action. Sometimes the memo may be inartfully drawn, but it is not considered a major necessity since the actual action has to be vetted through the budget process and was unanimously approved."

But there was no vetting. And Harson probably is well aware of that.

City councilmen and city administrators contacted for this story, including Stanley and City-Parish President Joey Durel, confirm that they were unaware Harson was also giving himself a raise. Minutes from the Nov. 20 meeting reveal that there was no discussion before the ordinance was adopted and approved unanimously with council members Kevin Naquin and Jay Castille absent.

"I don't worry too much about what other elected officials do," Durel tells The IND. "And, I have no control of what the council does."

Stanley says because it came from another elected official, he simply moved the request along.

The IND was able to reach two council members, Don Bertrand and William Theriot, for this story. Neither was happy to hear about the raise. "It would have been nice if someone from the DA's office had been at the council meeting to inform the council of the distribution of monies, to explain the adjustments," Theriot says. Theriot says he does recall reviewing the ordinance and was aware of the manning table adjustments but did not notice Harson's personal increase.

Bertrand appeared more put off by the sleight of hand. "Part of the problem we always face is ... we have no choice but to grant it. I questioned Mike on some numbers before I was ever elected, and I'll put it to you this way, he's never forgotten. Quite often, the reaction I get when I go to the administration is, We don't have much choice. We have to accept what they give to us in the budget.' That for me has always been a little difficult to swallow. I have problems across the board when it comes to the judiciary, the 15th Judicial District, what our obligations are.

"I'm taking your word for it that what he did was give himself a raise," Bertrand says. "If that's the case and that's what was going on during [the OWI] investigation period, I'd be outraged, that during that period of time ... Mike was giving himself a raise." Bertrand asked that the paperwork be emailed to him so he could review the documents himself, but he did not have any additional comment.

"I believe that I perform my functions in a fair, open and professional manner and provide many services for the people of the district," Harson says in his emailed response. "Also, considering that I have a total staff of 108 employees and assistants in six offices in three cities which poses many variable responsibilities, I believe that my salary is commensurate with that and is certainly justified." He also says he had not requested a raise since 2004.

"You mention about the timing of the raise, but, I don't see a connection since by December of 2012 the investigation, to my knowledge, was complete and the responsible parties had all been charged," Harson says.

If he were paying closer attention, Harson would know that to this day the feds still insist the investigation is ongoing (though by now we're pretty confident they've stopped digging). And Harson's request for a raise came only 1.5 months after Barna Haynes tendered her resignation from his office; Harson and Haynes had worked together for three decades. No one had even been charged by that time, and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell had not yet determined what he would do with the investigative report Stutes turned over.

Barnes was charged in a bill of information and pleaded guilty in January 2013, and a few days later ADA Williams and his secretary were charged and pleaded guilty (knowing full well that Williams had copped a plea, Harson kept him on until the day before he pleaded guilty so that, according to Harson, he could train his replacement). Two former case workers for Acadiana Outreach pleaded guilty the following month, and the alleged mastermind, Robert Williamson, was indicted in late February 2013. He is set to go to trial Oct. 20, though there has been some discussion of a possible venue change due to pre-trial publicity and, strangely, the impact the trial might have on the DA's race.

It wasn't until later that year that Caldwell announced no one would be prosecuted on state charges as a result of Stutes' investigative report on the DA's office and how it handled prosecutions.

"Additionally," notes Harson, "as your paper has mentioned itself I was never accused of any criminal wrongdoing."

No you were not. But the feds cited a "lack of oversight and safeguards" in your office as the reason it became the headquarters for this elaborate four-year bribery scheme that left your credibility in tatters.

Sounds like a good reason to give yourself a raise.