Some DWI deals made during bribery scheme to be questioned

The head of the local public defenders office has directed his lawyers to question all first-offense DWI pleas arranged as part of a bribery scheme at the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Five people have pleaded guilty in a federal probe of the scheme, which involved payments of cash and gifts to District Attorney’s Office employees in exchange for favorable plea agreements that brought a quick resolution of DWI cases in Lafayette Parish.

But many of those DWI pleas now may be challenged as invalid if a defendant winds up back in court for a second offense, said 15th Judicial District Chief Public Defender G. Paul Marx, who dubbed the bribery scheme the “Free Ride Scandal.”

The first-offense pleas become a legal issue when a defendant is arrested a second time and faces more severe penalties as a two-time offender.

The problem is first-offense pleas in the bribery scandal were arranged without the involvement of a lawyer, casting doubt on whether the defendants were denied their constitutional right to legal help, said Marx, who oversees the lawyers who represent defendants who cannot afford private legal counsel.

Federal prosecutors allege DWI defendants instead paid a fee to Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson, who in turn paid off staff at the District Attorney’s Office to secure the special plea deals.

Marx said he believes many defendants thought they were paying a legitimate fee to resolve their DWI case and the first-offense would be stricken from their record and not count against them.

“It is the policy of this office that all Free Ride Pleas of Guilty in DWIs in the 15th Judicial District, particularly where there was no counsel, must be reviewed by counsel in subsequent cases and challenged as indicated by the facts of each case,” Marx wrote in a memo this week to his staff.

Similar questions about the legality of the first-offense pleas were raised last month in a lawsuit filed by Lafayette attorney Barry Sallinger.

Sallinger filed the lawsuit to challenge only one plea, but he has said he believes the outcome could affect similar cases and there could possibly be “hundreds” of first-offense DWI pleas made as part of the scheme.

District Attorney Mike Harson has maintained the plea deals are valid, despite the fact that three of his former employees have admitted accepting cash or gifts in the scheme.

Harson, who has not been implicated in the federal probe, has argued all of the defendants knowingly waived their right to a lawyer before making the first-offense plea deals.

A federal grand jury indicted Williamson, the private investigator, last year on charges of conspiracy, bribery and making a false statement to a federal agent.

The three former District Attorney’s Office employees who pleaded guilty, including Harson’s longtime office manager, Barna D. Haynes, are cooperating with federal authorities in the ongoing investigation.

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.