COVINGTON, La. -- Four years ago, the St. Tammany Parish District Attorney's Office successfully convicted a former janitor at Abney Elementary School in Slidell of every parent's worst nightmare: the rape and molestation of two young boys in the school's bathroom.
While the criminal case is over, the St. Tammany Parish DA's office is now defending the St. Tammany Parish School District, and in effect, the janitor, against three civil lawsuits.
Experts in legal ethics say it's one of many conflicts posed by the working arrangement that Assistant District Attorney Harry Pastuszek has with the school district.
The former Abney janitor, Dino Schwertz, is now serving a life sentence at Angola Prison. Parents of one of the victims alleged in their civil lawsuit against that the school district should have better screened Schwertz before hiring him at Abney and then transferring him to Northshore High School. Schwertz and two insurance companies are also named defendants in that lawsuit.
The arrangement in which district attorney's offices provide legal counsel for local government agencies is not unusual on its face.
'Some district attorney's offices provide civil representation, you know regular counsel, for 15, 20, 25, 30 public bodies,' said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys' Association.
However, in the case of school district Assistant District Attorney Harry Pastuszek, the arrangement was far from typical.
His private law firm has been billing the district hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal work and the district has been paying Pastuszek through his private law firm. At the same time, Pastuszek has been getting paid as an assistant district attorney with the full retirement benefits of one.
In fact, when he retired last year, he started collecting more than $147,000 a year in benefits.
Records provided to WWL-TV late Tuesday by the district attorney's office show Pastuszek was re-hired as an assistant district attorney after his retirement, but no longer receives the state portion of his pay and no longer contributes to his district attorney retirement because he's drawing from it.
Law Professor at Pace University Bennett Gershman said about the arrangement in general, 'Serious, troubling ethical problems here. I mean, this raises so many serious issues involving ethical misconduct.'
He said the case involving the Abney Elementary janitor essentially left the district attorney's office prosecuting their own client.
'Is the prosecutor going to investigate the school board if he learns maybe some people in the school board maybe covered up evidence about the janitor? Is the prosecutor going to subpoena his own client for records?' Gershman asked.
Multiple experts, in interviews with WWL-TV and our partners at the New Orleans Advocate contacted, said either the criminal case should've been recused for prosecution or the civil case should have outside counsel handling it.
'The conflict should be resolved in protecting the integrity of the district attorney's office, the public agency,' said Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyenche.
'The prosecutor might have secret information that he learned about in the criminal prosecution that he may want to cover up in the civil litigation. You might have information that the prosecutor learned from conversations with school board people, etc. That the prosecutor can't reveal because these are confidential communications with your client,' Gershman said.
An attorney for one of the parents who sued the school district in the Schwertz case said the conflict isn't a problem in his particular civil suit.
'In my case, they actually helped my case because he's serving a life sentence,' said attorney Dan Robin.
The court records of the other two lawsuits are sealed.
One legal ethics expert said it might be possible to keep the civil and criminal cases separate by walling off communication about the cases between the two sides of the office.
But that opinion is in the minority.
'You can imagine with all of those boards and all of those DA's, it is not extremely uncommon for that to happen. And generally, once that's recognized, the DA will generally recuse themselves or they will get another attorney on that. Or maybe they will recuse on the criminal case and continue to represent the board. It depends on which obligation precedes,' Adams said.
But that has not happened at this point in the Dino Schwertz case.
'The prosecutor's office shouldn't be doing it because it raises too many serious and ethical land mines of ethical and constitutional dimension,' Gershman said.
Both Pastuszed and a spokesman for the St Tammany Parish DA's Office didn't respond to our requests for comment.