A St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office deputy was fired just over a year ago for stealing a department Taser and selling it for $500 — a transaction that came to light when another St. Tammany deputy bought the stun gun from a third party and a routine serial number check showed that it belonged to the Sheriff's Office, sources familiar with the case say.
Nathan Stokes' termination papers show he was fired for unauthorized use or misuse of agency property and criminal or immoral conduct, specifically using his public office for private gain.
But Stokes was not arrested or charged with a crime, according to the sources familiar with the case. In fact, a criminal investigation was never even opened.
The same thing happened when Ricky Steinert, a former "deputy of the year," admitted he had falsified a DWI arrest report. Sheriff Randy Smith said he does not believe Steinert committed a crime when he lied in describing a field sobriety test he conducted after stopping an off-duty National Guard soldier in January 2016. Steinert was allowed to resign from the Sheriff's Office last May.
Smith issued a news release Wednesday saying that he and District Attorney Warren Montgomery have agreed to turn the Steinert case over to state Attorney General Jeff Landry's office for review.
The announcement came in response to a joint report about the Steinert case Tuesday by The Advocate and WWL-TV.
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He was known as a go-getter in the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, an aggressive cop who made a lot of arrests, especially for DWI cases.…
State law prohibits filing false public reports, but no criminal investigation was ever opened into Steinert's actions. Nor were Steinert's other arrests reviewed for possible instances of cutting and pasting information from one report into another, which is what he admitted to doing in the one case. Steinert was a prolific officer, making 117 arrests from 2015 to 2017.
Smith's news release Wednesday said that all information about Steinert had been "in the hands of the District Attorney’s Office for several months." That appears to be true.
But a chain of emails also shows that the DA's Office had to badger the Sheriff's Office for information about why the two deputies left — a pattern of behavior that has at times left the DA's Office in the dark.
"I have not received the results of your (internal affairs) investigation into Ricky Steinert," Collin Sims, chief of criminal prosecutions, wrote to Major Richard Palmisano and Chief Jeff Boehm on May 31. "As you are aware, we need to make an official disclosure to the defense in cases that he worked. ... We are learning of officer resignation too often from Facebook and not from a formalized process."
On June 20, Sims wrote another email to Palmisano, who oversees human resources and internal affairs for the Sheriff's Office. "We received (information on) Nathan Stokes, but we still have not received the information on Ricky Steinert," it read.
On Wednesday, Montgomery said that his office learned of Stokes' departure from an employee roster update, but the office was not informed of the reasons for his separation.
“The Nathan Stokes matter was never referred to my office as a criminal case for investigation or prosecution," Montgomery said.
The inter-agency bickering is also the underlying theme of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former Chief Deputy Fred Oswald. He says he was fired because he was cooperating with the DA's Office in a case in which a deputy was accused of stealing drugs from people during traffic stops and giving them to his girlfriend.
Oswald's lawsuit does not name the deputy in question. But a St. Tammany grand jury indicted former patrol deputy Kenneth Szalajeski in October on two counts of malfeasance and two counts of distributing marijuana. The details in the indictment mirror those in Oswald's lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, Smith fired the deputy in March but decided not to investigate him or arrest him, despite evidence of wrongdoing.
Oswald claims that Palmisano told him that Smith had decided not to investigate the case any further and that the matter "would stay internal" to the department.
Oswald contacted Sims to tell him about the circumstances surrounding the deputy's termination, the suit says. When Sims asked who was conducting the criminal investigation, Oswald told him that Smith had decided not to pursue one. Sims said that the DA's Office would do its own investigation.
At that point, the suit says, the Sheriff's Office began trying to shield its internal affairs report from the DA's Office.
Neither Smith nor Montgomery, the DA, would discuss the Szalajeski case, citing the litigation and the criminal case. But when asked if it took prodding to get information out of his office, Smith said, "The information you were given is false."
In an earlier interview, Smith said the probe into Szalajeski began before he was sworn in as sheriff and that the Sheriff's Office and District Attorney's Office worked through a long investigation that ultimately resulted in Szalajeski's indictment.
But Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz said Wednesday that, weeks after his termination, Szalajeski had come to his department with a different story.
The former deputy was seeking employment and "admitted quite frankly that he took dope off two people and gave it to his drug-addicted girlfriend, who he is absolutely in love with," Lentz said. "My question was, 'Why aren't you in jail?' And he said, 'They didn't want to fool with it.' I was blown away," the chief said.
As for the flow of communication between the Sheriff's Office and the DA's Office, Montgomery said that things are working well now.
"Is there a procedure in place where the sheriff is supposed to tell you if there's a problem cop? I don't think there's a procedure in terms of paperwork they are supposed to fill out, but they are supposed to tell me. And they know that," Montgomery said.
When asked about Sims' email, in which the prosecutor complained he was learning about departures on Facebook, Smith bristled. He noted that people leave the agency in good standing every day. "If somebody leaves under investigation, we turn that over to him," he said.
Smith said he has two deputies assigned to the DA's Office "who get any information they need or have ever requested in any case or anything we do here at the Sheriff's Office."
If Sims is finding out about departures on Facebook, "that's his problem," Smith said.
Stokes said he did not intentionally act in "any manner other than the best interest of the STPSO," but that leaving has been one of the best things that could have happened to him. He said has returned to school and is concentrating on training safe and informed shooters "without the inefficiency and politics that continue to haunt the Sheriff's Office."