ST. TAMMANY PARISH -- Sheriff Randy Smith fired one of his deputies last year for stealing a Sheriff’s Office Taser then selling it on the Internet.
Termination paperwork indicates the sheriff’s internal investigation found the deputy engaged in “criminal/immoral activity,” yet Smith chose not to launch a criminal investigation or arrest the deputy.
Nathan Stokes was fired last February and he was granted a shot at an appeal in front of the sheriff’s internal review panel, but the panel also recommended Stokes be terminated.
Stokes’ official response in the paperwork says he doesn't remember how he got the Taser and that he didn't falsify records to say it had been formally been issued to him by the department.
St. Tammany-Washington Parish District Attorney Warren Montgomery on Wednesday evening confirmed that the Stokes case "was never referred to my office as a criminal case for investigation or prosecution."
That case is one of a number cases involving problem deputies that, despite uncovering possibly criminal acts, the sheriff has not turned over to the St. Tammany Parish District Attorney’s office to review for possible prosecution.
For example, an internal investigation into Deputy Bryan “Ricky” Steinert found he falsified information on a DWI report about how suspect Ryan Heyd, performed on a field sobriety test.
Experts who viewed cellphone video taken by one of Heyd’s friends showed Heyd passing the test, while Steinert’s report indicated Heyd stepped offline, used outstretched arms to steady himself and dropped his leg on two of the main parts of a standard field sobriety test.
“It made me think the guy was deranged or something. None of this happened,” said Michael Bradley, Heyd’s attorney.
Heyd declined to be interviewed.
Smith launched an internal investigation into the arrest and said Steinert resigned before Smith had the chance to fire him.
The internal affairs report generated in the Steinert case indicates Steinert admitted to his lieutenant that he “had fabricated his arrest report by coping [sic] and pasting the probable cause from a previous DUI arrest.”
While filing false public records is prohibited by Louisiana law, Smith failed to launch a criminal investigation into Steinert’s actions, saying in an interview he didn’t believe it was a crime.
Other arrest reports also raised questions about the accuracy of Steinert’s narrative.
WWL-TV found three DWI reports written by Steinert that had some identical language with the names changed.
“What should not happen is for the sheriff to make the unilateral decision that this should go no further. That's a decision that should really be made by the DA's office,” said Loyola Law Professor and legal ethics expert Dane Ciolino.
After the joint WWL-TV/New Orleans Advocate investigative report about Steinert was published, Smith announced he would ask the state Attorney General to review the Steinert case and other past cases involving problem deputies.
“After consulting with District Attorney Warren Montgomery, we both agree that an independent review of this case by the Office of the Louisiana Attorney General is appropriate in order to put any concerns to rest that the public still may have about this and other cases,” Smith said in a news release issued Wednesday afternoon.
While Smith and Montgomery say the lines of communication are now flowing freely between the two, emails indicate that wasn’t always the case.
Emails obtained through a public-records request indicate the DA's staff had to ask the Sheriff's Office several times what the sheriff's internal investigation into Steinert had found.
Montgomery said there’s no standard procedure the sheriff is supposed to follow in notifying prosecutors of a problem cop.
But Montgomery's on Wednesday said his office typically finds out about deputies leaving through roster updates instead of formal statements, including the reason for separations, from the Sheriff's Office.
“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.
Prosecutors have a legal duty to turn over to defense attorneys any information that calls into question a police officer’s credibility.
Smith's former Chief Deputy Fred Oswald is included in an email chain in which prosecutors asked several times for an official response from the sheriff’s office about what their its investigation into Steinert uncovered. Oswald filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Smith in January over allegations Smith fired him for sending the results of an internal affairs investigation to the DA in the case of another problem deputy.
“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.
Oswald's lawsuit doesn't name the deputy involved in the case that he says got him fired, but the circumstances surrounding that case mirror those of the case involving Deputy Kenneth Szalajeski.
Szalajeski was fired last March after he was accused of taking drugs from traffic stops and giving them to his girlfriend.
Covington Police Chief Tim lentz said Szalajeski asked him for a job shortly after he was fired by STPSO.
Lentz said “Szalajeski 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. My question was, 'Why aren't you in jail?' and he said, 'they didn't want to fool with it'."
Oswald said he was fired for giving an internal affairs file to the DA in a case where a deputy was accused of stealing drugs from traffic stops and giving them to his girlfriend.
Montgomery eventually indicted Szalajeski on two counts of malfeasance and two counts of distributing marijuana in October of last year.
When asked if it took prodding to get Smith to turn over information about deputy-involved cases to the DA, he said there was one case that’s the subject of both civil and criminal litigation that he couldn’t discuss.
As for others, “The information you were given was false,” Smith said.
Emails between the sheriff's office and the DA's office about deputies Steinert and Szalajeski tell a different story.
In June 2017, the DA's criminal chief Collin Sims told the sheriff and his top brass, "I have not received the results of your IA investigation into Ricky Steinert. As you are aware, we need to make an official disclosure to the defense in cases that he worked." He goes on to say, "We are learning of officer resignation too often from Facebook and not from a formalized process."
Again, Smith said information is now being shared regularly between the agencies, a sentiment echoed by Montgomery.
“I have two deputies who work for me who I pay their salary and benefits who are assigned to that 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,” Smith said.
As for Sims finding out about deputies leaving STPSO from Facebook, “That's his problem,” Smith said.
Last month, WWL and The Advocate outlets submitted a public-records request for the personnel files of Stokes and three other deputies. The St Tammany Sheriff’s Office has yet to release them, with a paralegal for the office saying they process records requests in the order they receive them.
A spokeswoman for Smith declined to answer questions about the deputies, instead instructing WWL and The Advocate to file a public-records request for the information.
While Nathan Stokes initially declined an interview, he later sent a statement saying, "I maintain that at no point did I intentionally act in any manner other than the best interests of the STPSO." Stokes said his separation from the department has been good for him, allowing him to go back to school, spend more time with family and "...concentrate on my passion of training safe, informed shooters, without the inefficiency and politics that continue to haunt the Sheriff's Office."