Hearing on Stark County sheriff's removal begins; Defense to present its case today
From complaints of creating a hostile work environment to making sexual innuendos to being banned from the dispatch area -- twice, former and current Stark County Sheriff's Office employees and Stark County officials began building their case Tuesday against the county's sheriff, Clarence Tuhy.
Representatives from the state's Office of the Governor conducted the first of two hearings in the Stark County Courthouse regarding the Stark County Commission's request to have Tuhy removed from his elected office by Gov. Jack Dalrymple. The governor is given the power to remove a sheriff by North Dakota law.
Stark County State's Attorney Tom Henning said Surrogate Judge William F. Hodny is taking testimony for Dalrymple. The governor will have up to 10 days to post notice of a hearing after receiving Hodny's report.
One more witness will testify for the state today before Tuhy's defense presents its case.
A workplace investigation ordered by the Stark County Commission claimed that Tuhy has created a "toxic environment" and is "ineffective and incompetent."
Stark County Commissioner Duane Wolf testified that complaints about Tuhy started coming in around 2003 or 2004, close to a year after he began his role as sheriff.
"I received calls, not only from employees but department heads in the building -- police chief and 911 coordinator -- that they had problems getting along with Clarence and they asked if there was anything we could do to help," Wolf said.
"The department has had 15 people leave in the last few years," he added.
In response to Wolf's turnover argument, Tuhy's attorney, Michael Geiermann of Bismarck, said, "In two years, the department has lost two years of experience, but it has hired 70 years of experience."
Wolf's testimony included issues he was aware of between the 911 coordinator and Tuhy.
"There were issues between Clarence and the dispatch area, but we said that we expect people to work out their own problems," Wolf said.
Gary Lostullvy, dispatch coordinator and emergency manager for about 10 years, told Julie Ann Lawyer, assistant attorney general for North Dakota, that Tuhy's visits to dispatch were distracting.
"I do not think most things he came in to dispatch for demanded instant gratification," Lostullvy said. "Him coming in like that was very stressful to the dispatchers. He also made below-the-belt sexual innuendos that were inappropriate behavior and several dispatchers made complaints."
Lostullvy said the same thing happened when he came back to work in dispatch for four months in 2011. Tuhy was again banned from dispatch, Lostullvy said.
Lostullvy agreed that Tuhy is not the only person to make offhanded remarks in the dispatch area, and he said no formal complaints of sexual harassment were ever made against Tuhy.
Wolf said the commission was unsure if the complaints showed an issue in the office or if they were coming from disgruntled employees. After the study was completed, the county felt it was best to limit its liability, Wolf said.
"We were concerned with the results of the study because it said there was a hostile work environment and the sheriff acts in a very negative manner toward employees," Wolf said. "The study did conclude that the county would not get sued because it hasn't done anything unlawful."
Also included in Wolf's testimony was a vehicle purchase by Tuhy not bid through the county. Wolf said items costing more than $50,000 are advertised for the collection of bids, but he discovered three weeks ago that Tuhy charged $84,700 to a Chevy dealer in Bismarck.
Geiermann pointed out that the Jan. 3 commission meeting minutes reflect that Tuhy told the commission that a vehicle purchase would put them over budget.
"That's why Tuhy contacts dealers to get the best price and then comes to you," he said. "Would it surprise you that that has gone on for years? The commission never objected to the way vehicles were purchased in your 12 years on the commission, and there is no written policy on the purchase of vehicles."
Wolf said he did remember the conversation with Tuhy about the vehicle purchase.
"There were times that we wanted more justification, like with a sniper rifle he purchased," Wolf said. "We talked about it at meeting, but didn't give him permission to buy it. He came back to the next meeting with a $7,000 bill for two sniper rifles. That did not make the commission happy."
Testifying to the turnover in the sheriff's office was Ernie Shear, a former sheriff's deputy, who left the office in February for a position as an investigator for a Dickinson energy company because he did not like the operations at the sheriff's office.
"It was the whole experience in general," he said. "The atmosphere was hostile. We were basically expendable manpower."
Shear wrote a letter to the commission voicing concerns after he left the sheriff's office. Among the concerns, he testified, was going five months without a properly fitted bulletproof vest.
Testimony about a lack of training came from Terry Oestreich, detective with the sheriff's office and a certified arms instructor since the '90s. Oestreich said he has concerns regarding firearm training.
"It's one of the most important things we do that we can't undo," he said. "I sent a letter to the captain about my concerns that we could be held liable if the deputies are not trained correctly. Scheduling a training is up to the captain to do for the department, and I took this to the sheriff, but nothing has happened."
Geiermann questioned Shear about a dispute the deputies had with Tuhy over lunch breaks and having to answer calls unpaid while on break.
The deputies hired an attorney in Fargo to deal with the matter, so Tuhy consulted a lawyer and dealt with the matter by moving deputies from nine-hour shifts to eight-hour shifts.
"You guys complained and Clarence got legal advice and changed the system and it was lawful," Geiermann said.
Also testifying on Tuesday were former SCSO deputy Brian Johnson, former Dickinson Police chief Chuck Rummel, former SCSO deputy Justin Fridrich, former SCSO office administrator Mary Ell, former SCSO patrol deputy and Dickinson Police officer Matthew Hanson and Henning.