As part of what he calls a “new, renewed focus of working together with the FBI,” Attorney General Jeff Landry announced Monday the arrest of six individuals he says played a role in the pay-for-plea scheme that went on under District Attorney Mike Harson’s watch from 2008-2012.
Monday’s announcement outside of the Lafayette Parish Courthouse follows the six guilty pleas obtained by the feds in recent years in connection with the conspiracy, in which people facing OWI and other criminal charges in the 15th Judicial District would pay up to $5,000 to private investigator Robert Williamson for favorable outcomes in their cases.
As a result of the federal probe, Williamson and Barna Haynes, Harson’s longtime administrator, were sentenced to 6.5 years and 18 months in prison, respectively. For her access to defendants and assistance with the paperwork that allowed for a quick disposition of the criminal charges, Haynes was paid $500 a pop, federal investigators have said.
An assistant district attorney and secretary in the office also pleaded guilty, as did two former workers of Acadiana Outreach.
Arrested Monday in the state case were Kevin Ozene, Christopher Luke Edwards, Dan Kennison, Justina Ina, Kenneth Franques, and Joy Trahan. All were booked in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center Monday.
Ozene, who has worked as a deputy clerk of court for Lafayette Parish over the past three decades, is accused of injuring public records and malfeasance in office. He was put on leave immediately after his arrest, Clerk of Court Louis Perret tells The IND.
Edwards and Kennison, both criminal defense attorneys, were arrested for corrupt influencing, criminal conspiracy and accessory after the fact.
Ina, a former probation officer for the DA’s office, was arrested for malfeasance in office. District Attorney Keith Stutes says Ina retired from the office in November.
Franques, a reserve deputy city marshal working full-time for the Maurice Police Department, is facing a public bribery charge. Maurice Police Chief Warren Rost tells The IND Franques, an ex-sheriff’s deputy who once served as spokesman for former Sheriff Don Breaux and unsuccessfully ran to replace his boss in 1999, has been a patrolman with the Maurice department for about five months. Franques had been out sick for several weeks, according to Rost, who says he learned of the arrest Monday when authorities were trying to track Franques down. The chief said Monday he is in talks with the city attorney about Franques’ future with the department.
Trahan, a manager in the Lafayette branch of the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles, was arrested for malfeasance in office and criminal conspiracy.
Additionally, an arrest warrant was issued for PI Williamson, who began serving his prison sentence in November, for public bribery, corrupt influencing, filing false public records and criminal conspiracy.
The AG investigation into possible violations of state law was supposed to have started under Landry’s predecessor, Buddy Caldwell, who pronounced in August 2013 that no state charges would be filed and that the case was closed. Here is what Caldwell said at the time:
The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office has concluded its inquiry... We find that no state charges are warranted.
We are aware that there is an ongoing federal investigation and that the U.S. Attorney’s Office is pursuing the criminal conduct which took place in this matter. Therefore, we consider our file to be closed.
Landry, however, says among his first actions in office has been to conduct a thorough review of such cases.
“While federal authorities took action to complete their portion of this problem, those stemming from federal law violations, the state under the previous administration did not complete its actions under state law,” Landry said. “These arrests are part of my review to ensure those who have committed actions of public corruption see the results of their actions. The actions taken today are part of my review of the Louisiana Department of Justice; from ongoing court cases, to unfinished investigations, to cases awaiting actions.”
It now seems crystal clear Caldwell was playing politics with the case, as it was not until November 2014, after Stutes — a former assistant district attorney — defeated Harson, that the probe commenced under Caldwell, who had a close relationship with Harson.
Stutes, who had investigated his own office while still an ADA in 2012, had forwarded his findings to the FBI, Department of Justice and then-AG Caldwell, hoping the state official would look into possible violations of state law.
“In 2012, as an Assistant District Attorney, I commenced an investigation which ultimately led to the recusal of the District Attorney’s Office and the transfer of the investigation to the Department of Justice and FBI and to the then Louisiana Attorney General,” Stutes writes in a statement to The IND. “Though the District Attorney’s Office, of which I now am the newly elected DA, is still recused, I applaud the efforts of the DOJ, FBI, and the AG’s office in their further investigative efforts and will continue to give full assistance, cooperation, and support.”
Although Landry says the investigation is ongoing, Monday’s announcement appears to be a bookend on the sordid saga, though at least one IND source with close with connections to the investigation believes more charges could come.
For many close observers, the charges were a long time coming.
In early 2013, right before the guilty pleas started in the federal case, The IND reported that attorney Christopher Luke Edwards, who once worked as an ADA and then as a public defender in the 15th Judicial District, was one of an unknown number of Lafayette lawyers being investigated by the feds for his alleged role in the conspiracy.
No attorneys, however, were nabbed by the feds.
Williamson was the last of the six charged in the federal case to plead guilty in June of last year. In addition to his prison sentence, he also got three years of supervised release and was ordered to pay $77,000 in restitution to the Social Security Administration.
The feds maintained that Williamson, 67, paid Haynes about $70,000 over the course of four years for her assistance; she pleaded guilty to accepting $55,000 in bribes. For his efforts, Williamson was paid no less than $444,000 from 2008 to 2012 (though the feds say some of those monies were for fines, penalties and other expenses).
In the federal case, co-defendants Haynes, 61, former ADA Greg Williams, 47, and Sandra Degeyter, 64, all of Lafayette, were sentenced in July on one count of conspiracy to commit bribery. Co-defendants Denease Curry, 49, of Broussard, and Elaine Crump, 62, of Lafayette, were also sentenced at that time on one count of misprision of a felony for failure to report bribes offered and received by employees of the DA’s office.
Haynes received 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine; she reported to prison in August. Williams, Degeyter, Curry and Crump received two years of probation. Additionally, Williams and Degeyter were sentenced to six months of home confinement.
Curry is a former employee of the district attorney’s office. Degeyter and Crump are former employees of Acadiana Outreach.
Don Bostic, supervisory special agent for the FBI, which began investigating the DA's office in 2011, joined Landry at Monday's press conference, thanking him for the cooperative posture he has taken to tackle public corruption since assuming office in January.
"All citizens of the state of Louisiana should expect and demand honest government at all levels," Bostic said. "The integrity of those involved in the judicial process is not an option; it is essential. Those who peddle their influence in return for personal gain damage the very fabric of the judicial system."
Bostic added that people should all be treated fairly, "regardless of their access to those with influence or their ability to pay bribes."