Former school janitor Dino Schwertz persistently protested that he was innocent of raping and molesting young boys at Abney Elementary School in Slidell in fall 2007, but his claims did nothing to help his criminal case.
He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years in 2009, and the assistant district attorney from St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed’s office who prosecuted him said he wanted to add another 20 years to the sentence by having him ruled a career criminal.
But two years later, Schwertz was trumpeting his purported innocence again, this time in an affidavit taken by the law firm that represents the St. Tammany Parish School Board. That firm is owned by Harry Pastuszek, an assistant district attorney who got the School Board job — which has landed his firm roughly $500,000 annually in recent years — through his position in Reed’s office.
Pastuszek’s associate, David Pittman, traveled to Angola to take a deposition from Schwertz, in which the former janitor swore that he never touched the boys or harmed them in any way. Parents of the boys are suing the school system, and the deposition was filed into the record as part of the School Board’s defense of its potential liability.
Pastuszek’s apparent attempt to raise questions about the guilt of a man criminally prosecuted and sent to prison for life by his own office adds another layer to an apparent conflict of interest that one legal expert called “bizarre” and “just wrong.”
Patrick Connick, a state representative and brother of Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, represents the parents of one victim. He recently wrote to Pastuszek asking him to recuse himself and his firm from the School Board case, and he said Wednesday that he has been “verbally advised” that Pastuszek plans to do so.
Reed’s office issued a statement Wednesday saying that for the past 20 years or so, Pastuszek “has not been involved in prosecutions in the criminal division nor was he involved in the Schwertz prosecution.”
Reed’s statement also said that Pastuszek’s billings to the School Board were in line with industry standards and that his representation of the board has been “exemplary.” None of Pastuszek’s arrangements are improper in any way, Reed said.
But documents obtained by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV show that Reed helped secure a sweetheart deal for his former chief assistant back in 1992, bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Pastuszek’s firm and fattening his state retirement, based partly on money paid to him by the School Board.
State Treasurer John Kennedy said Reed owes the public an explanation for Pastuszek’s retirement deal. “It’s people at the top who game the system who take unfair advantage of the retirement systems at the expense of the other people who just get up and go to work every day as assistant DAs and at the expense of taxpayers,” Kennedy said.
Schwertz denies all guilt
Schwertz’s affidavit, taken on Dec. 6, 2011, is marked Exhibit I and seeks to defend Pastuszek’s client, the St. Tammany Parish School Board, in civil litigation stemming from Schwertz’s crimes. Those cases are sealed.
In the 13-point affidavit, Schwertz swears that he never harmed anyone. He says the doors to the bathrooms at Abney were required to be open when he was inside and couldn’t be locked from the inside. But those are the only points that touch on the school itself. The remainder of the document is a denial of any guilt on the former janitor’s part.
“During my employment at Abney Elementary, I never harmed any student or any other individual in any way,” Schwertz says in the affidavit. “I never inappropriately touched or fondled any student, child or minor either before, during or after my employment with the St. Tammany Parish School Board.”
Schwertz also denies having any type of sexual contact with minors or using any instrument or object to inappropriately touch a student or child at the school, or at any other time.
“I am not guilty of the crimes for which I was charged by the State of Louisiana which supposedly involve students or former students at Abney Elementary School,” the statement concludes.
Legal experts said Pastuzsek’s involvement in the civil case posed a clear conflict of interest from the start, and that one of two things should have happened: The District Attorney’s Office should have recused itself from the criminal prosecution, or Pastuszek should have recused himself from the civil litigation.
Pastuszek has not responded to requests for comment on the matter.
Reed’s statement Wednesday suggests that a recusal was unnecessary.
But Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University in New York, said he can’t recall a similar conflict of interest. “Bizarre is putting it mildly,” he said.
“On one hand, you’re prosecuting the man; on the other, you’re protesting his innocence,” he said. “That’s just crazy. … It’s astonishing to me.”
There are questions about what the DA’s Office may have learned during the investigation and potentially made accessible to Pastuszek, he said. “There are too many potential conflicts there,” he said.
Even if Pastuszek were to withdraw now, that wouldn’t erase the problem of a serious conflict of interest, Gershman said, and it’s hard to know how the conflict will affect the civil litigation. He also said the conflict “raises serious questions about the validity of the (Schwertz) conviction,” and he called Pastuszek’s actions reckless.
Pastuszek’s involvement in the Schwertz civil litigation isn’t the only aspect of his employment that has raised eyebrows. The financial underpinnings of his arrangement with the DA and the School Board are also highly unusual, particularly when it comes to his retirement pay, which he began drawing last year.
“There’s nothing he can say that can justify drawing two retirements, a full salary and 400 grand from the School Board,” Kennedy said, referring to a second retirement program set up for some of Reed’s handpicked staffers.
Under that program, which lasted six years, the public paid 20 percent of the employees’ salary, with no employee contribution required.
“This is all taxpayer money, and I just can’t imagine how this has gone on so long,” Kennedy said.
When Reed was elected in 1984, he tapped Pastuszek to be his first assistant district attorney. On Oct. 9, 1992, Pastuszek stepped down from that position and instead began representing the School Board — which used the DA’s Office as its legal counsel — as his job assignment. A letter from Reed to the School Board from that time outlines that Pastuszek would be paid $70 per hour by the board.
At the end of 1993, Reed sent another letter to then-Superintendent Terry Bankston urging that the School Board hire Pastuszek directly, calling it time-consuming and wasteful to continue going through two billing systems to pay him.
But a ledger sheet from 1993 shows that the DA’s Office did get a small amount from the School Board for providing Pastuszek’s services. The School Board paid Reed’s office a total of $102,398 that year; of that sum, the DA’s office passed $99,637 on to Pastuszek.
“Since Mr. Pastuszek has worked out so well with the board, I am recommending that the board consider hiring Mr. Pastuszek directly as their legal counsel,” Reed wrote.
The School Board has paid Pastuszek’s private firm ever since then, with several increases in the rate over the years, resulting in the current fees of $150 an hour for work done by Pastuszek and the two other lawyers in his firm and $70 an hour for secretarial and other services — a setup that brought in more than $500,000 to his firm last year.
Pastuszek continued to draw a salary from the DA’s Office as well, though his exact salary is hard to pin down. While Reed’s office provided documents showing that Pastuszek was paid $68,000 in 2012 and $25,000 in 2013, the year he retired, documents from the state retirement system suggest he made far more.
In 2010, his retirement contributions were based on reported earnings of more than $169,000. In 2011, that number climbed to $190,000.
In 2012, Pastuszek reported to the state District Attorneys’ Retirement System that he made nearly $245,000. In 2013, the year he partially retired, he reported $116,000 in public income.
Income from four sources
Despite the change in Pastuszek’s deal with the School Board, that agency continued to contribute to his retirement fund in the district attorneys system. Reed’s statement says the contributions were based on 7 percent of the hours billed by Pastuszek to the School Board.
In fact, Pastuszek’s state retirement comes from four sources, according to information from Pete Adams, of the Louisiana District Attorney Association: the DA’s Office, St. Tammany Parish, Washington Parish and the state. In total, he receives $147,000 a year in retirement benefits.
“He’s one of the highest-paid members of the District Attorney’s Office in St. Tammany. He’s getting full retirement from the DA’s retirement system,” Kennedy said. “He’s getting retirement from another special retirement (fund) that the district attorney set up, and he’s getting 400 grand a year from the School Board. Now, talk about putting all four feet and your snout in the public trough. I don’t know how he sleeps at night.”
Reed also took other steps to increase Pastuszek’s pay, which helped boost his retirement income. When Pastuszek stepped down as first assistant, he stopped getting the state portion of his pay — what’s known as a warrant. District attorneys’ offices get a limited number of warrants, generally in line with their caseloads.
But interoffice memos from 2007 indicate that the Legislature authorized two additional warrants for Reed’s office that year. “Walter wants Harry Pastuszek to be placed on one of them,” a memo from office administrator Jerry Reed said. Pastuszek received that warrant, worth $45,000 a year, until he retired in 2013 and was no longer eligible to receive it.
Reed’s statement Wednesday suggests that Pastuszek continues to draw a salary from the DA’s Office because “he serves as a consultant on various issues involving the DA’s Office.” He did not specify the issues.
The record shows other interventions by Walter Reed on Pastuszek’s behalf. An interoffice memo from July 1993 mentions that Pastuszek “handled many special prosecutions for the office” that year. “Harry needs to be compensated,” the memo says, and it lays out a plan to pay him an additional $2,000 a month for the next eight months.
A 2005 interoffice memo also called for an increase in the salary of five employees, including Pastuszek. “Because of the new increases in insurance premiums coming soon, the employees listed below must have their salaries adjusted,” the memo says. The other names were redacted from records provided by Reed’s office.
Pastuszek at times went to bat for himself. In 2007, he wrote a letter to Reed outlining resolutions he had drafted to increase his hourly compensation for his School Board work; he asked Reed to sign off on them.
“I believe that the resolution does no violence to the existing system that exists relating to my representation of the School Board and my continued association as an assistant district attorney, which I would like to maintain as long as you see fit,” he wrote. “I don’t believe this resolution will raise any questions with regard to the relationship that I have to your office.”
Pastuszek remains an assistant district attorney to this day, even though he retired more than a year ago. He continues to get paid $1,836 per month in that capacity, although he hasn’t been a presence in the office for years.
Kennedy, for one, believes Reed and Pastuszek need to offer the public some answers, though he doubts they’ll be to his liking.
“There’s no scenario under which taxpayers could possibly find that acceptable,” Kennedy said of Pastuszek’s various benefits. “As a St. Tammany resident, I’m embarrassed. As a taxpayer, I’m offended.’’
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.