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Kuntz: No intentions to be secretive: Belfield mayor, police chief suspected cop was having sex on duty

BELFIELD — The Belfield mayor and police chief suspected a police officer was having sex on duty before a female ousted him.

A transcript of a Belfield City Council executive session obtained by The Dickinson Press confirmed council members discussed and voted on June 2 to fire Officer Travis Carlson after a woman told Police Chief Nicky Barnhard they allegedly had sex 15 to 20 times, some while Carlson was on duty. Carlson allegedly had asked the female to cover the incidents up or he would “throw her under the bus,” city attorney Sandra Kuntz said in the transcript.

0 Talk about it

“That is using your badge and your uniform to influence and is unacceptable conduct as a police officer,” Kuntz said in the transcript.

Carlson, who is married to Gina Carlson, filed for divorce after he was fired.

There were other violations documented. Criminal charges have not been filed against Carlson, but potential charges are being evaluated, Kuntz told The Press.

“We have him (Carlson) documented doing a number of violations,” Kuntz said in the transcript. “... He is texting while driving, he has ride-a-longs, sharing of confidential information ... all of that crosses over that boundary.”

The executive session was held to “discuss potential liability and litigation risks for the city,” according to previous meeting minutes. Kuntz cited in the transcript looking out for incidents of “discriminatory treatment, sexual harassment, and simple rights of various individuals,” which could pose liability concerns for the city.

According to the transcript, Mayor Leo Schneider, council members Alanston Hurt, Harold Kubischta and Barnhard had suspicions that Carlson was having sex on duty but didn’t act on the suspicions.

“And I should have followed up on it,” Schneider said in the transcript. “I knew it … I knew what was going on and I asked and asked, and they said, ‘No, no, no.’”

The city voted 4-0 in both the executive session and open meeting to terminate Carlson on grounds of misconduct. Schneider abstained. He also declined to comment on the matter.

Residents had concerns over the executive session and contacted The Press. The newspaper later filed a complaint to the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem wrote in an opinion the council violated the state’s open meetings law and required the city to transcribe parts of the meeting that was subject to the law.

Lost credibility

Part of the meeting was legally covered by the state’s closed meeting law, Stenehjem ruled. Kuntz presented a document to the council containing active “criminal investigative information,” as well as Kuntz’s mental impressions, conclusions and legal theories regarding “reasonably predictable criminal litigation that may be brought against Mr. Carlson,” according to the opinion.

“To engage in acts of corruption or bribery or to condone acts of corruption or bribery of police officers — he didn’t have a problem reporting his overtime and wanting to get paid for that while he engaged in his extracurriculars.”

The city attorney had concerns about Carlson’s credibility if he was kept on the force, according to the transcript. Carlson’s actions had “tainted” his credibility along with the police department, Kuntz added.

“I’m going to have a difficult time rehabilitating this officer when I have information that he targeted various defendants, and when I have him on a witness stand before a judge or jury and have to lay his credibility on the line for probable cause to stop a vehicle that subsequently may or may not have had anything from drug violations, to DUI or to other valid criminal offenses,” Kuntz said in the transcript. “They are all concerns, and despite all the equipment that has been updated to assist the PD, the whole credibility concern is that it comes down to the word of the officer versus the word of the defendant.”

She added: “To willfully lie, provide false testimony, provide misleading information ... that is all hand in hand with targeting defendants. I’m not going to be able to sort out those that were the result of relationships in place concerning the female subject versus those that are legitimate … and the defense counsel is going to have a heyday with it.”

The council invited several members of the community and Carlson to speak during the session.

“There is no excuse for my actions, nor can I explain what or why I did what I did,” Carlson said in a prepared statement during the meeting. “If I’m given this second chance I can promise you this type of thing will never happen again and I will work even harder to make myself a better officer, friend, and husband.”

Five people spoke on Carlson’s behalf, including Gina Carlson. She said God didn’t make anyone perfect, including her husband.

“But just like God won’t give up on Travis, I will forgive him for his sins and never give up on him,” Gina Carlson said in the transcript. “I encourage you to do the same.”

The board may have had a different stance if it was a one-time incident, but Carlson had been having sex and lying about it for “some time, and he has had that time to think about what he’s doing,” Kubischta said in the transcript.

“When it comes to using your authority to pick on or harass someone for someone else’s misgivings or just because someone doesn’t like them, you’re going to help make it rough for them, and that is way over the line,” Kubischta said. “And like I said, it’s not a lapse in judgment, it’s almost premeditated. That many times and that long, it’s a no for me.”

There were also concerns that Carlson lied about his actions.

“What’s going to be the truth?” Schneider said.

Kuntz recommended the council terminate Carlson’s employment. Barnhard said termination was the best option. The council agreed.

“It’s a betrayal of trust,” council member Jeff Iverson said in the transcript. “We’ve struggled for some time now and we finally though we found someone that could take us another direction.”

Schneider added the incident was “going to hurt the other three officers if they have a case.”

“It’s way worse than I thought it was,” he said. “It’s out of my hands. I can’t help him.”

What they knew

According to a police report, the female contacted Barnhard on May 28.

But the transcript indicates city officials had suspicions beforehand.

“They had suspicions that there was time being spent with this victim that was unusual; that’s what I understand of their knowledge base,” Kuntz told The Press.

There had also been rumors spreading around the community about Carlson’s actions, Hurt said in the transcript.

“My wife and I brought it to Nick’s attention several months ago what was rumored and Nick talked to him,” Hurt said. “He (Carlson) had plenty of time to make amends to his behavior.”

Carlson told council members and Barnhard there was nothing going on, Kuntz said.

Carlson was fired from the Dunn County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly losing the department’s K-9 dog last year. There were also allegations he abused the dog, lost civil papers and other forms of misconduct from various law enforcement agencies.

Kuntz said a background check was performed on Carlson before he was hired in April 2013, adding it was fully investigated.

The police department is taking steps to prevent and detect incidents like Carlson’s, Kuntz said.

“There is always room for education in any type of agency,” she said.

“I don’t know if you can say it was preventable. That is kind of a 20-20 hindsight, you know, Monday night quarterbacking statement,” she said. “I think it is more accurate to say that with additional training we are going to be in situation to identify those red flags, be able to have the hard conversations if any kind of questionable behavior is occurring where you put it out in the open and catch the behaviors sooner.”

Fixing community relations

The meeting was briefly used to discuss how to fix community relations and handle the press. Some members anticipated members of the media calling.

“We will need a discussion and game plan in response to inquiries,” Kuntz said in the transcript. “You may be best served to have no comment and refer those to my office or the chief of police.

“I think those responses will be best coming from me as it is a small town and the news is already out in the public in the form of Facebook, in the bars, and the general grapevine, and is running like wildfire.”

The police department is doing what it can to reach out to the community to regain its trust, Kuntz told The Press, such as community outreach programs and working with the school on drug abuse prevention.

“In a nutshell, working with the community to deal with everything from the speeding to the criminal or traffic incidents where the community is involved in reporting as they are trying to make it safe when they get the phone call,” she said. “It appears to be well on its way.”

There were a lot of factors that played into having the executive session, including timing and the criminal investigation, Kuntz said. It was never the intention of the council to be secretive but rather to balance and discuss appropriate safety nets for the community and parties involved in ongoing investigations, she added. The city also wanted to establish facts without spreading rumors.

“That’s the balance that gets tough,” she said. “There wasn’t any attempt to be secretive or hide things. It’s balancing that concern, and it is always tough when you are in a public setting to balance that.”

When asked what the city council was doing to fix community relations, Schneider said he had no comment. The Press was unable to contact Carlson. Barnhard did not return messages left by The Press.

Baumgarten is the assistant editor for The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-456-1210. Follow her on Facebook at april.baumgarten.

April Baumgarten
April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, as the news editor. She works with a team of talented journalists and editors, who strive to give the Grand Forks area the quality news readers deserve to know. Baumgarten grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college,  she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.