Allegations include bribery scheme
LAFAYETTE — A lawsuit filed this week will likely dig into the details of a scheme at the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office where bribes were paid for favorable treatment in DWI cases.
Three former employees of the District Attorney’s Office have already pleaded guilty in a federal probe of the scheme.
The lawsuit now questions the legitimacy of DWI guilty pleas that Lafayette attorney Barry Sallinger contends are tainted because they were arranged by a man who is not an attorney and who instead doled out cash to secure plea deals for his clients.
Sallinger is representing 24-year-old Ryan Dean Stelly, who claims in the lawsuit to have paid Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson $5,000 in 2010 in exchange for arranging a plea deal for a first-offense DWI.
Stelly has since been arrested on another DWI charge and now faces a more severe penalty if convicted of a second offense.
But Sallinger argues in the lawsuit that the first-offense plea should be thrown out because it was not negotiated by an attorney, effectively denying Stelly his constitutional right to legal counsel and raising questions about whether he lost an opportunity to challenge the evidence against him.
Stelly was an “unwitting participant” in the bribery scheme, believing that Williamson “was acting with the full cooperation and approval of DA Mike Harson” and that the $5,000 was simply a legitimate fee, according to the lawsuit.
Harson said Wednesday that he believes the plea deal, even if it were secured by bribing his employees, will be upheld and that similar plea deals had been offered to other defendants who were not aided by Williamson.
The lack of an attorney being present during the negotiations should not make a difference if someone knowingly waived his or her right to counsel, Harson said.
“Every person is entitled to an attorney, but the law doesn’t say you have to have an attorney,” he said.
The District Attorney also questioned how a defendant who paid Williamson to secure a plea deal can now turn around and challenge the plea.
“He’s basically coming into court with less than clean hands,” Harson said.
Harson has not been implicated in the case, but federal prosecutors wrote in court filings that the scheme was carried out without his knowledge because of a “lack of oversight and safeguards.”
A federal grand jury indicted Williamson last year in an ongoing investigation into the bribes, and the three former District Attorney’s Office employees who pleaded guilty, including Harson’s longtime office manager, Barna D. Haynes, have agreed to cooperate with federal authorities.
Haynes pleaded guilty last year to accepting at least $55,000 from Williamson to use her position in the District Attorney’s Office to set up the special plea deals.
Federal prosecutors have alleged that in return for the cash payments, Haynes allowed the defendants to participate in a program in which criminal charges were quickly dismissed if they successfully completed certain probation requirements, such as driver’s safety classes, substance abuse treatment and community service.
The details of the plea agreements themselves have not been questioned in the federal investigation, only that bribes were paid to allow defendants access to those special deals.
Federal prosecutors have not indicated how many pleas were arranged in return for bribes, but they have alleged in court filings that the scheme ran from 2008 to 2012.
Sallinger said he is representing four clients, including Stelly, who are facing second-offense DWI charges after pleading guilty to a first offense in deals arranged by Williamson, but there are likely many more people in a similar situation.
“We still don’t know how many cases. It has to be hundreds,” Sallinger said. “I don’t know if we will ever know.”