Lafayette suit challenges validity of DWI pleas

First-offense DWI pleas arranged in a bribery scheme at the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office could be called into question in a lawsuit planned by a Lafayette defense attorney.

At issue are plea deals in Lafayette Parish allegedly arranged by private investigator Robert Williamson, who is under federal indictment in an investigation of bribes paid to employees of the District Attorney’s Office in return for favorable treatment in DWI cases.

Willamson is awaiting trial, but three former employees of the District Attorney’s Office already have pleaded guilty in the probe.

Meanwhile, some DWI defendants who made the special plea have since been arrested again on new DWI charges.

At least five of those defendants now say they should not face more severe penalties for second-offense DWI, arguing their first DWI pleas are not valid because they were effectively denied the right to an attorney and were represented instead by Williamson, a private investigator.

“It’s an illegal act in that it was a transaction that was confected by non-lawyers,” Lafayette defense attorney Barry Sallinger said.

He said 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.

At a court hearing Thursday in one those cases, Sallinger told Lafayette City Court Judge Douglas Saloom he plans to file a lawsuit challenging the prior plea of Ryan Dean Stelly, 24, a case the attorney said could affect hundreds of others in similar situations.

Stelly allegedly paid Williamson $5,000 to help arrange a plea to a first-offense DWI in 2010, but at the time, Stelly knew nothing about the alleged bribes and thought he was paying for legitimate legal assistance, according to information from Sallinger.

A year later, Stelly was arrested again on a DWI charge and faces a more severe penalty if convicted as a two-time offender.

Sallinger said if the Stelly lawsuit is successful, the ruling could apply to all the plea deals that Williamson allegedly arranged.

“There were hundreds of transactions involving Williamson, and all of them are subject to the same challenge,” Sallinger said.

“... It could be, theoretically, a class action.”

Federal prosecutors have not given a specific number for the amount of DWI pleas linked to Williamson, but court documents filed in the federal case alleged the scheme ran from 2008 to 2012.

The court filings say the scheme involved payments to employees of the District Attorney’s office of more than $70,000, as well as gifts including such items as an autographed New Orleans Saints hat, bicycles and clothing.

Sallinger said he is now researching the lawsuit challenging Stelly’s earlier plea and plans to file it in the near future, a move that could put on hold some of the pending DWI prosecutions in city court.

Federal authorities have said Williamson would allegedly use some of the money paid to him by clients for bribes to help orchestrate special DWI plea deals that often allowed for the quick resolution of the case and the immediate reinstatement of driving privileges.

District Attorney Michael Harson has repeatedly defended the pleas as legitimate, saying earlier this month that his office will fight any effort to toss them out.

He said the pleas, regardless of what led to them, are valid and the defendants knowingly waived their right to an attorney.

Harson has not been implicated in the federal investigation.