LAFAYETTE — Retired prosecutor Keith Stutes announced Thursday that he plans to run next year against longtime 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson, who has not faced a challenger since he was first elected to the office in 1994.
Stutes retired from the District Attorney’s Office in September 2012 after a 28-year career in which his name was often in the news as a lead prosecutor in several high-profile cases.
Stutes’ departure came amid a federal investigation of bribes paid to employees in the District Attorney’s Office for favorable treatment in DWI cases.
“I had come to the realization that the leadership of the office no longer functioned properly,” Stutes said at the formal launch of his campaign on Thursday in Scott.
The federal investigation is expected to continue to play out over the next year as a backdrop to the campaign.
Harson has not been implicated, but federal prosecutors wrote in court filings that the bribery scheme was carried out without his knowledge because of a “lack of oversight and safeguards.”
“The kind of scandal that engulfed the District Attorney’s Office is the kind of thing that voters pay attention to,” said Pearson Cross, chairman of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s political science department.
Cross said Stutes is a formidable candidate with a ready-made message — “to right the ship, so to speak” — and will likely have little trouble raising money.
“It certainly should give Mike Harson pause to consider whether he wants to stay in the race,” Cross said.
Stutes declined on Thursday to discuss specifics about the issues he plans to campaign on in the coming year, but it will obviously be difficult for Harson to avoid questions about an ongoing federal bribery investigation that has so far brought guilty pleas from five people.
Three of those people worked in the District Attorney’s Office, including Harson’s longtime secretary and office administrator, Barna D. Haynes. She admitted accepting $55,000 in bribes over four years to help set up special plea deals for criminal defendants, mainly in DWI cases.
Harson said in a statement Thursday that he had no involvement in any of the wrongdoing and knew nothing about it before the federal investigation began.
“In regards to the question of the federal investigation, the federal prosecutors have on several occasions pointed out that I was never a target in that investigation. That to me says it all,” Harson wrote. “In regards to the claims that I must have known that these events were going on, I can only say that, to my knowledge, any transfers of goods or money that were made occurred away from the office. Therefore, I would have had no way of knowing about it unless one of the participants would have told me, which they absolutely never did.”
Stutes, whose name had been tossed around for the past year as a possible challenger to Harson, said he began actively raising money several months before his formal announcement on Thursday. He mailed out a letter to supporters a few weeks ago announcing his inaugural fundraiser: a $250-per-couple event in November at the Petroleum Club in Lafayette.
The 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office serves Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, so a successful campaign requires a broad reach.
In a campaign letter to supporters, Stutes said he believes at least $500,000 is needed for the race.
Stutes said Thursday that he plans to give his full attention to the campaign in the 14 months that remain before the Nov. 4, 2014, election.
“I’m retired, so I have all the time in the world to devote to this,” he said.
It is unclear how much money Harson now has on hand, but he ended 2012 with $63,151 in campaign funds, according to state campaign finance records.
Harson’s most recent political campaign was in 1994, when he won a special election to succeed Nathan Stansbury, who had stepped down from district attorney’s post before his term expired because of illness.
Since then, Harson has won re-election three times without opposition, in 1996, 2002 and 2008.