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Fired Dickinson city attorney to appeal termination

Dickinson's city attorney has been fired for an alleged conflict of interest, though she alleges her removal is an act of retaliation and plans to appeal the decision.

Attorney Jennifer Gooss, who held the city position for about a year, was fired on June 29—one day after the conclusion of an internal investigation centered on Gooss' conduct regarding an open records request made by her husband, Jeff Gooss.

Jennifer Gooss was placed on paid administrative leave on June 2 and the investigation, which was conducted by Michael Waller, a partner in the Bismarck litigation department of the Crowley Fleck PLLP law firm, began in mid-June.

Jeff Gooss filed his request for information on Feb. 26 after the Dickinson Police Department withdrew a conditional offer of employment for a patrolman position on the basis of Gooss' background check and polygraph exam.

Jennifer Gooss handled that request and provided the investigative report to her husband shortly after his inquiry was received.

Later that same day, Dickinson Police Capt. Joe Cianni informed City Administrator Shawn Kessel that he believed Gooss' involvement with her husband's request was a conflict of interest.

On Feb. 29, Kessel instructed Jennifer Gooss to recuse herself in the matter, citing the conflict of interest. Gooss complied with the direction, and, according to Waller's report, did not work on the city's response to her husband's open-record requests after she was instructed not to do so.

Waller's report states that Jeff Gooss continued a correspondence with the city regarding his background check over the following months and filed a request for additional information on April 27.

According to Waller's findings, Jeff Gooss "expressed an intention to seek legal counsel" in his contact with the city and stated he would "pursue 'all legal remedies afforded to me'" to rectify what Waller described as "perceived inaccuracies" in the police's background check.

Jennifer Gooss said Wednesday that, at the time of the alleged conflict of interest, there was "no animosity" between her family and the Dickinson Police Department.

"Everybody knew about it that day it happened in February," Jennifer Gooss said of her response to the initial request for information. "I spoke with Shawn Kessel about it and he asked that I have no further involvement because of the potential conflict of interest, but nobody had any problem with me bringing it home. It wasn't until three months later, when the department had a problem with us, that it became an issue."

Jennifer Gooss alleged her relations with the police department soured following her involvement with harassment claims that had been made by some of the department's employees.

"As the city attorney, it was my job to give legal advice and be part of it," she said. "They did not like me being part of it and wanted to do it on their own, regardless if they were knowledgeable about employment law."

Dickinson Police Chief Dustin Dassinger declined to comment on the department's relationship with Jennifer Gooss and directed questions to Dickinson City Administrator Shawn Kessel.

Investigation focused on later allegations

On her part, Jennifer Gooss said she believed friction between the department and herself led to additional allegations being made against her.

Those claims were the focus of Waller's investigation, which sought to answer four questions that touched on matters such as if Jennifer Gooss had continued to work on the city's response to her husband's open records request after being instructed not to and if she had consulted other counsel regarding the city's response to her husband's record request. The investigation also focused on whether Gooss assisted her husband with either of his two open-record requests or with his request that his background check be corrected, and whether she had spoken to other city employees about the city's hiring process.

Waller found that the first three questions could be answered with "No," but affirmed that Jennifer Gooss had discussed hiring practices with the city's human resources coordinator.

Though he answered negatively to the majority of the questions guiding his investigation, Waller still had misgivings about Jennifer Gooss' involvement with her husband's first open-records request and wrote that he was concerned she "did not recognize immediately the conflict of interest and recuse herself."

"The attorney-client relationship is impaired when the lawyer's conduct causes the client to question the lawyer's loyalty and independent judgement," Waller wrote. "Although the city was not prejudiced by the information she provided to her husband, her relationship with the city has been damaged."

Waller ended his report by writing he believed Jennifer Gooss' conduct "provides a reasonable basis to terminate her employment." He also suggested offering her an opportunity to resign in return for a neutral response provided by the city to any inquiries about her employment, as well as some alternative form of discipline such as giving Gooss unpaid leave and requiring she complete a course in professional interest with a focus on conflicts of interest.

Kessel: Investigation report findings 'speak for themselves'

Kessel said the city offered Jennifer Gooss the option of resignation, which she refused. He added that Waller's results "speak for themselves."

"If you read that document, it's the initial conflict of interest identification that I think he bases a great deal of his recommendation of," Kessel said. "I think it had little to do with the allegations that were addressed in those four questions."

Gooss said she did not believe Waller's inquiry represented a "proper investigation" that examined the issue thoroughly. Further, she said the grounds for her termination run counter to the city's employment policies. Gooss said she will argue at her appeal hearing on Aug. 4 that, even if her actions constituted a conflict of interest, the city code "would not allow them to terminate me over that."

"I spent the last year putting in 100 percent as city attorney," she said. "I'm deeply saddened by the recent events and have begun taking steps to remedy the actions taken against me because they do not comply with city code."

Kessel said the code allows the city to handle issues as they arise based on the severity of the incident.

"There's no reason why we couldn't take the action that was taken, based on our code," he said, adding the severity of the city's reaction matched that of the incident itself. "I think the action was warranted, based on the behavior."

The city's legal counsel is now being provided by attorney Haylee Cripe through a contract with Cripe's employer, local law firm Mackoff Kellogg.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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