Defendants challenge penalties
LAFAYETTE — A curious fallout is developing from a scheme at the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office where bribes were paid in exchange for favorable treatment in OWI cases.
Some of those defendants have since been arrested again.
And those defendants are now fighting the possibility of harsher penalties for a second-offense OWI, arguing that special plea deals to their first offense — allegedly secured by a private investigator in exchange for cash and gifts — should be thrown out because the alleged offenders did not receive proper legal representation.
It is unclear how many such challenges might emerge, but the scheme ran for four years and could have involved more than 100 OWI cases in Lafayette Parish.
The federal investigation into the bribes is ongoing.
Five people have pleaded guilty, including three former employees of the District Attorney’s Office.
Charges are still pending against Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson, who federal authorities allege helped orchestrate special OWI plea deals that often allowed for the quick resolution of the case and the immediate reinstatement of driving privileges.
Williamson’s alleged work in negotiating the special plea deals is at the heart of the legal challenges working their way through Lafayette City Court, such as that of Ryan Dean Stelly, 24.
Stelly allegedly paid $5,000 in cash to Williamson after being referred to him by a lawyer, according to Stelly’s new defense attorney, Barry Sallinger.
Sallinger said Stelly did not know about bribes Williamson allegedly paid to employees in the District Attorney’s Office to secure his 2010 plea deal in a first-offense OWI case and had assumed Williamson was providing legitimate legal assistance for a fee.
“Mr. Stelly had no knowledge of the existence of a bribery scheme until he was visited by FBI agents,” Sallinger wrote in an email.
The year after the first plea arranged by Williamson, Stelly was arrested again on an OWI charge and faces prosecution as a second-offender, which could bring harsher penalties.
Sallinger argues in court filings that the problem of using the 2010 plea to support the second-offense charge against Stelly is that Williamson was acting as an attorney without a law license and did not do any of the things a real attorney should have done, such as considering whether prosecutors even had enough evidence to convict Stelly or discussing all Stelly’s legal options.
Sallinger said he is representing four other clients who are facing a second-offense OWI charge following a plea arranged by Williamson for a first offense.
Harson said this week that his office will fight any effort to toss out pleas that Williamson helped arrange, arguing that representation by an attorney is not a legal requirement and that the OWI defendants knowingly waived their right to a lawyer.
“A person can voluntarily give up their right to counsel,” Harson said. “That’s a big smoke screen to raise issues that don’t belong in these cases.”
Sallinger has also filed a motion seeking to disqualify Harson, City Prosecutor Gary Haynes or any attorneys with their offices from handling cases where a first-offense OWI is being challenged because of Williamson’s involvement.
Sallinger argues that both Harson and Haynes have potential conflicts in handling those cases, because some of Harson’s former employees have already admitted involvement in the bribery scheme and because one of the key players was Hayne’s wife, Barna D. Haynes.
Barna Haynes, Harson’s longtime office manager, pleaded guilty earlier this year to accepting at least $55,000 from Williamson to use her position in the District Attorney’s Office to set up the special pleas deals.
Harson has not been implicated in the bribery investigation.
A hearing on the motions in the Stelly case and others with similar issues is scheduled for Oct. 24 in city court.