ST TAMMANY PARISH -- A former top deputy in the St Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office filed a whistleblower lawsuit this week alleging he was fired for trying to keep Sheriff Randy Smith from burying a criminal case involving one of his deputies.
Fred Oswald worked for the STPSO for more than 30 years. He served as Chief Deputy under both Smith and former Sheriff Jack Strain.
After three decades of service Oswald says Smith told him he needed to retire in July. Oswald's lawsuit says he was, “… terminated by defendant Smith in retaliation for his refusal to participate in defendant Smith's illegal activities."
“I happened to be number two in charge and I felt that it was my duty and obligation to take the position that I took at that time because I had to sleep at night but there were other employees around me looking to me for guidance,” Oswald said in an interview about why he felt the need to speak up about the investigation that he felt was being swept under the rug.
Last March, Oswald said he learned that an unnamed St Tammany Parish deputy had been accused of stealing marijuana, evidence, from suspects and giving it to his girlfriend.
“I had discussions and made statements that this deputy needs to be investigated by someone, either by us or another agency. And that's where the coverup and the stalling and things of that sort started,” Oswald said.
While he would not name the deputy, the facts in the lawsuit are strikingly similar to a case involving former St Tammany Parish Sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Szalajeski.
According to Oswald, Sheriff Smith said he wanted the investigation handled internally, instead of turning the case over to the St Tammany Parish District Attorney's office for possible prosecution.
The lawsuit says Oswald took the case to the DA's office himself in April, “Because of the stonewalling and the coverup and the refusal to give all the information to the DA's office.”
But the sheriff's office dragged its feet and turned over incomplete information in piecemeal form, according to complaint.
Finally in July, Oswald met with deputies tied to the investigation and told them to turn over the entire case file to the DA's office.
“Thirty to 40 minutes after they left is when [Sheriff Smith] summoned me in his office and said I need you to resign or retire,” Oswald said.
Court records show the DA indicted Szalejeski in October.
In a statement Friday, Chadwick Collings, an attorney for STPSO said Smith had kept Oswald on to allow him to accumulate enough time on the job to be fully vested for his retirement.
"Unfortunately, it was apparent soon after Sheriff Smith took office that Mr. Oswald had difficulty in adjusting to the new administration. Sheriff Smith tried for months to encourage Mr. Oswald to embrace the Sheriff's vision for positive change within the Sheriff's Office all to no avail. Mr. Oswald simply could not break the habits he learned working for twenty years under the prior administration of former Sheriff Strain," Collings said.
He went on to say that the sheriff and Oswald had agreed it was time for Oswald to retire.
But Oswald tells a different story.
“I was fired,” he continued, “That's a lie.”
“There will be as this case progresses a substantial amount of documentation and proof to back up the accusations that were made in this petition that was filed,” said Scott Bickford, Oswald's attorney.
Last October, Szalajeski was indicted on 2 counts of malfeasance and two counts of marijuana distribution.
He is scheduled for trial in March.
New Orleans Advocate staff writer Sara Pagones contributed to this report.