- Associated Press - Monday, November 24, 2014

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) - Two Lafayette City Court judges say drunken driving plea deals involving a private investigator’s alleged bribes cannot be used as the basis for later, more serious second-offense DWI charges.

Judges Douglas Saloom and Francie Bouillion made that ruling together last week in DWI cases involving bribes allegedly paid by private investigator Robert Williamson, The Advocate (https://bit.ly/1uXYuh3) reports.

Williamson, who is not an attorney, has pleaded not guilty in federal court to six counts of bribery and one each of conspiracy, Social Security fraud and lying to a federal agent. Judge Elizabeth E. Foote recently rescheduled his trial June 8, 2015, to allow time for cancer treatment.

Five people, including a former assistant district attorney and two other former employees of the District Attorney’s Office, have pleaded guilty.

District Attorney Mike Harson says he’ll fight the ruling handed down Wednesday.

“It was made without any evidentiary hearing, and therefore, there were no facts established to prove the allegations of the defendant’s motion,” Harson wrote in an email to the newspaper.

Barry Sallinger, who represents a number of the DWI defendants, argued that the first-offense pleas should be thrown out because they were not negotiated by an attorney. He said defendants could have lost a chance to challenge evidence, and might not have realized that their pleas would mean harsher penalties for a second offense.

“The court found the criminal convictions of the bribery scheme principals and procedural irregularities of the Williamson pleas so egregious that it was compelled to reject their validity,” Sallinger said.

He has said his clients did not realize the money they paid Williamson went for bribes.

The judges made it clear their ruling applies to all pleas involving Williamson, according to Sallinger.

The judges did not file written reasons for their ruling. The court record indicates that they sat together to hear Sallinger’s challenge and both agreed to quash the Williamson pleas.

The pleas all involved a program to let defendants who had already completed probation requirements such as community service get their DWI cases quickly resolved and expunged. Williamson is accused of bribing employees of an agency that supervised people on community service as well as people in the prosecutor’s office.

It is unclear how many plea deals he allegedly helped arrange. The number could exceed 100, according to figures in federal court filings detailing the amount of money that changed hands from 2008 to 2012.

The state Attorney General’s Office said last year that it would defer to federal authorities and not pursue state criminal charges in the case.

But Assistant Attorney General David Caldwell confirmed last week, at the request of federal authorities, his office also is investigating. He declined to elaborate.

The bribery scandal was a key issue in a heated 15th Judicial District attorney’s race. On Nov. 4, retired prosecutor Keith Stutes defeated Harson, who had served for 20 years.

Harson has not been identified as the target of a federal investigation.

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Information from: The Advocate, https://theadvocate.com


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