Tammany DA’s arrangement with School Board raises questions _lowres

Advocate file photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Harry Pastuszek Jr., attorney for the St. Tammany Parish School Board

Harry Pastuszek Jr., a member of former north shore District Attorney Walter Reed’s inner circle, has been charged by the state Ethics Board with a raft of violations related to his lucrative and controversial contract with the St. Tammany Parish School Board.

The probe by the Ethics Board followed a series of 2014 reports by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV that raised questions about Pastuszek’s deal with the school system. The School Board contract, which dated to 1992, earned $1.8 million for Pastuszek’s law firm — which he wholly owns — between 2011 to 2014 alone.

Pastuszek, who now lives in Florida, was once Reed’s top aide, and he became the School Board’s lawyer through his position as an assistant district attorney.

The 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, led by Reed for three decades, traditionally provided legal services to the School Board, a responsibility that state law generally assigns to district attorneys.

Reed proposed to the School Board in October 1992 that Pastuszek would provide legal services to the board on behalf of the DA, at a rate of $70 per hour. About a year later, the School Board voted to retain Pastuszek and his private law firm as its general counsel, according to the Ethics Board.

At Pastuszek’s request, he received his pay in two checks, one that went straight to his law firm and the other, which represented 7 percent of his hours, went to the DA’s Office, where it was directed to his account in the District Attorney Retirement System. He continued to draw a paycheck from the DA’s Office, though he no longer worked as a prosecutor and was being paid privately for his School Board work.

Pastuszek’s arrangement, as described by the Ethics Board, resembled Reed’s own deal with the St. Tammany Parish Hospital, a public hospital that the DA’s Office had traditionally provided with legal services.

Reed’s hospital contract, for which he was paid $30,000 per year, is one focus of the federal indictment against the former DA.

As with Pastuszek’s arrangement, Reed initially provided legal services to the hospital in his capacity as DA, but he eventually converted the deal to a private one.

The Ethics Board voted Jan. 14 to charge Pastuszek with violating five state ethics laws. The charges essentially accuse Pastuszek of double-dipping: receiving income for his private law firm from the School Board when his duties as an assistant district attorney were limited to representing that agency.

The Ethics Board also said he received retirement system contributions to which he was not entitled, and it targeted a payment made to Pastuszek’s firm by the DA’s Office for representing it in a civil case, Johnson vs. City of Bogalusa, while he was employed as an assistant district attorney.

Attorney Gray Sexton, who is representing Pastuszek in connection with the Ethics Board charges, said his client did nothing wrong.

“Mr. Pastuszek is a highly professional attorney who carefully discharged his duties and responsibilities to the Office of District Attorney and the St. Tammany Parish School Board,” said Sexton, who once was counsel for the Ethics Board. “Everything he has done is in accordance with the rules of professional conduct and the code of governmental ethics.”

He said it is unfortunate that the Ethics Board brought charges designed to indict Pastuszek’s service to the DA’s Office. He will pursue a motion to dismiss the charges, he said.

Meredith Mendez, spokeswoman for the St. Tammany Parish school system, said officials there would have no comment on what she called a legal matter.

Pastuszek began as first assistant district attorney when Reed first took office in 1985, but he stepped down from that position when he began to represent the School Board.

During the years he represented that board, his pay went up three times. Pastuszek drafted a resolution in April 2007 that hiked his rate and that of the other lawyers in his firm from $70 to $100 per hour. The School Board adopted the change, which was made effective June 1, 2007. The following year, the rate was raised to $125 an hour and finally, in 2009, to $150 an hour.

The Ethics Board said Pastuszek violated ethics laws by “participating in the drafting” of a motion that would financially benefit him.

Indeed, the new billing arrangement proved to be a moneymaker for his firm, which also received $70 an hour for secretarial and other work. From 2011 to 2014, the firm was paid $1.8 million.

At the same time, Pastuszek was drawing a salary from the DA’s Office and fattening his public retirement account with a portion of his School Board earnings. He also was one of a handful of DA’s Office employees, including Reed, who participated in a special retirement account in which the office covered the entirety of the employee’s contribution. Pastuszek received the second-highest amount, after Reed.

Sexton said an initial scheduling conference with the Ethics Adjudicatory Board should happen in the next two weeks. If efforts to dismiss the charges are not successful, something Sexton expects to resolve by June, Pastuszek will face a panel of three administrative law judges this fall or next spring.

Ethics Administrator Kathleen Allen said Pastuszek could be fined $10,000 per violation and one-and-a-half times the economic advantage derived from any ill-gotten gain.

If findings of fact suggest a criminal violation, that would be forwarded to the local prosecutor, she said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.