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

April Curran says she wasn’t the kind of teenager who was regularly hauled into the office for disciplinary issues: As a 15-year-old honor student, she spent mornings at Fontainebleau High School near Mandeville and afternoons studying creative writing and visual arts at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

But in fall 2008, Curran broke a rule.

She says she needed a feminine hygiene product, so she called her mother from her cellphone during lunch. When a teacher spotted the phone, she tried to hide it in her shirt.

The infraction, she says, resulted in the school resource officer slamming her head against a brick wall, handcuffing her and marching her down a hallway. He allegedly threw her into another wall before delivering her to the school disciplinarian, where she says she remained handcuffed for hours.

Curran, now 21, says she still feels shaken by the experience, which prompted her family to sue the St. Tammany Parish School Board and the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, among others, in federal court in 2009, claiming she had been subjected to excessive force.

Curran’s civil case still is open, but her lawyer, Kearney Loughlin, says motions have been filed to dismiss her claims because she was convicted in May 2009 of battery against a police officer, a charge that stemmed from the incident at Fontainebleau.

Phillip Aleshire, the sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school, claimed Curran battered him, knocking off his sunglasses and the radio from his belt — something Curran denies.

While all parties involved in the criminal case knew about Curran’s lawsuit, according to Loughlin, there were two crucial pieces of information he and his client didn’t know. Judge Dawn Amacker, who found Curran guilty in 22nd Judicial Court, is married to Ted Dittmer, a lawyer who works for Talley, Anthony and Hughes — the firm that represented the Sheriff’s Office in the civil suit. And the School Board’s lawyer, Harry Pastuszek, is an assistant district attorney with the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted her, perhaps helping to blunt Curran’s civil claims in the process.

Neither Amacker nor the District Attorney’s Office revealed that information before the trial, Loughlin said. In fact, he didn’t learn about Pastuszek’s affiliation with District Attorney Walter Reed’s office until a couple of weeks ago, when the New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV ran reports about another situation in which Pastuszek’s work for the School Board — a job he got through Reed — created what critics say is a clear conflict of interest.

In that case, Pastuszek’s associate went to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to take a sworn statement from Dino Schwertz, a former school janitor that the District Attorney’s Office had successfully prosecuted for raping one boy and molesting another at Abney Elementary School. Pastuszek’s private law firm, which has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for its work on behalf of the School Board, was defending the board from lawsuits filed by the victims’ families.

The affidavit from Schwertz claimed he was innocent of the charges for which the DA had successfully prosecuted him.

Patrick Connick, the attorney for one of the plaintiffs, last month asked Pastuszek’s firm to withdraw from the suit. The firm apparently obliged: Connick says a new firm is now defending the school system in that case.

Curran’s lawyer says he will file an appeal of the verdict in the criminal case because of Pastuszek’s involvement.

Reed, Pastuszek and the School Board all declined to respond to requests for comment on the Curran case. Judge Amacker, meanwhile, issued a written statement outlining the reasons that she cannot comment.

“The Judicial Canons and La. Sp. Ct. Rule 23 prevent me from discussing the specifics of the case in your report,” she wrote in an email. “This is a matter that involves a juvenile proceeding. La. Children’s Code Article 412 provides these proceedings are confidential and cannot be disclosed except as expressly authorized. However, I reject any suggestion that I am unable to fairly and impartially administer justice due to my husband’s profession. I rule solely based on the law and the merits of the case before me.”

But others see troubling conflicts of interest.

Bennett Gershman, a law professor at Pace University, found the failure to disclose those conflicts inexcusable. “Seems like they don’t play by the rules that I’ve been taught to follow in terms of professional ethics,” he said.

First, Gershman said, Reed’s office should have told Curran’s attorney that Pastuszek held a position at the DA’s Office. “They can’t wear both hats at the same time,” he said. As an assistant district attorney, Pastuszek would have been privy to whatever the DA’s Office knew about the criminal action, he said, a criticism that he also leveled in the Schwertz matter.

Loughlin says the problem is potentially worse in Curran’s cases because the criminal conviction actually benefits Pastuszek’s client — the School Board — and harms his.

Gershman also criticized Amacker’s involvement. “She’s sitting on a case where questions about the sheriff’s conduct are being handled,” he said. “That’s even worse, because the judge is making findings of fact, as well as law.”

When Loughlin learned that Amacker’s husband worked for the law firm representing the sheriff, he filed a motion to recuse her. Judge William Burris granted the motion in 2010 — a year after the verdict — saying that while it hadn’t been shown that Amacker was unable to conduct a fair and impartial trial, even the appearance of impropriety should have resulted in a recusal.

But that small victory didn’t do much good for Curran. Loughlin’s attempt to get a new trial was denied as moot because Curran already had served out her sentence for the battery, which was probation.

Loughlin insists the criminal proceeding was a malicious prosecution. Among other complaints, they say the surveillance video from the school was provided by the resource officer himself and didn’t include the initial encounter between the officer and the student.

An internal affairs investigation was conducted by the Sheriff’s Office, but Curran’s use-of-force complaint was not sustained. Aleshire was taken to task only for having contacted his shift lieutenant to find out if he had probable cause to arrest Curran for battering him. “This is something that a 26-year veteran should have known,” investigator Wanda Jarvis wrote.

Curran said the deputy showed up at the hospital emergency room, where her mother had taken her to check out her injuries, and told her she was being arrested for battery. “I was shocked that I was being charged with battery of an officer when really I was the one being battered,” she said.

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain said in a statement that the agency could not comment on the suit’s specifics but that interviews conducted on the scene, an Internal Affairs Bureau investigation and the conviction all support Aleshire’s version of what happened.

Aleshire, who had several negative performance reviews, was fired from the Sheriff’s Office in January 2011, but Strain said the reasons were unrelated to the incident at the school.

Curran’s civil suit, which had been scheduled to go to trial Sept. 29, has been delayed until March, Loughlin said.

Curran finished her high school education at Mandeville High School without incident, but she says she felt betrayed by what happened to her.

“I hope that I can get some dignity back through this. I feel so violated. I just hope that they can take out the corruption because it’s just wrong,” she said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.