When The Prosecutor Stumbled Onto Graft
Lafayette's district attorney had set up a program of "immediate 894 pleas" for those accused of DUI who had completed 32 hours of community service, substance abuse programs and driver safety classes. Participants in this generous program received a special session in a judge's chamber, outside the normal court process, where charges are dismissed as long as no other violation is committed during a probationary period. In 2008, the district attorney's secretary, Barna Haynes, realized she could set up these hearings and began arranging them for the co-conspirator, who represented clients even though he was not actually a lawyer. The unnamed man charged up to $5000 for each acquittal, out of which he paid Haynes $500 per case for her assistance. Haynes collected more than $70,000 in cash until she was caught. Clients had paid hundreds of thousands for the special treatment allowing them to keep their driver's licenses and retain a clean record.
Beginning in January 2010, Williams realized what was going on and decided to cut himself into the deals. He used his own secretary to set up "immediate 894 sessions" with a judge and the co-conspirator. Curry collected eight cash payments of $200 for her participation. The co-conspirator rewarded Williams with autographed New Orleans Saints items, bicycles for Williams and his family, business suits, shoes and $500 in cash.
Sure, autographed Saints items are enticing. And who wouldn't sacrifice his integrity and face prison for a bicycle? And everybody needs shoes, right?
The system seems so utterly ripe for abuse in retrospect. Secret hearings, prosecutorial discretion unfettered by prying eyes. In fact, this is a dream for many, feeding two beliefs that the legal system has never been able to shake. The first is that there is a two-tier system, one for the wealthy, those who can afford to pay their way out of trouble and another for those who can't make minimal bail.
The second is that there is, in fact, an opportunity to bribe one's way out. That there are cops who take bribes, prosecutors, judges who are on the take. Over the past 30 years, I can't tell you how many defendants gave me that twinkle-eyed look and shyly asked what it would take to make their case go away. There have been times when my response, that it just doesn't happen, left them with the suspicion that they just found the wrong lawyer. If they found the right one, he would know who to pay off.
To their credit, the FBI learned of this graft and took it down.
As the U.S. Attorney’s Office continues to press its bribery case against former employees of the Lafayette Parish District Attorney’s Office, the number of confessed co-conspirators has increased to three. And that small circle will likely continue to widen as the results of a two-year federal investigation are revealed.The District Attorney, Mike Harson, isn't a target, according to the United States Attorney. Kinda makes you wonder if he was too out of the loop to realize the he could have gotten new shoes out of the deal. But this happened in his office, on his watch. Even if he didn't get a piece, this doesn't reflect well on him at any level.
That's a long time for a scheme like this go on without anybody getting wind of it. It's not just that the insiders making the magic happen can't keep their mouths shut, but that the only way to get defendants to put up money is to make sure that the marks know about the opportunity to buy their way out.
In all, close to $1 million may have been squeezed over four years from drunken driving defendants anxious to get out of trouble, and at least $75,000 or more in bribes is believed to have been paid to courthouse insiders willing to help them do it, according to a Daily Advertiser review of drunken-driving cases and court records.
That's where the scheme grows large, and usually out of control. Lawyers need to know, since it's their clients who sincerely wish to walk and have the funds to make it happen who paid the big bucks. Clients need to know, and we all know they can't keep their traps shut. Their spouses need to know, since somebody is bound to complain about the missing pile of $100 bills. And even the cops who wonder what happened to their busts can't be kept out of the loop entirely, since they won't get medals if their busts don't stick.
And then there were the people in whom trust is reposed. The judge and the prosecutors who swear the oath. While there is no indication that any judge was getting paid off, or that every ADA in the office was wearing shiny new shoes, But at the same time, it seems almost impossible to believe that no wind of this deal made its way through the halls. Whenever things don't happen the way they are normally supposed to happen, it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly.
Maybe my response to those clients who wondered whether there was a magic way to make their cases go away knew something I didn't. Maybe it's happening in New York, or somewhere else I've been, because if this could go on for four years in Lafayette Parish and every single person in the courthouse and district attorney's office didn't have some clue that people were buying their way out of drunk driving convictions, then there is no place it couldn't happen.