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McKenzie County Commission seeks to remove sheriff

McKenzie County sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger

WATFORD CITY — The McKenzie County Commission voted unanimously Thursday to petition the governor to remove Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger from office after an investigation into workplace bullying and retaliation.

Commissioners also voted unanimously to place Lt. Michael Schmitz on administrative leave while commissioners decide on disciplinary action that could include termination.

The county's human resources manager recently requested an investigation into allegations of workplace bullying and retaliation made against both Schwartzenberger and Schmitz, according to documents made public Thursday.

An investigator with The Village Business Institute interviewed employees of the sheriff's office and other county departments and concluded that Schwartzenberger and Schmitz used threatening, intimidating and other controlling behaviors.

Some officers said they feared they could lose their jobs if they spoke up, including one who described "rampant fear" in the sheriff's office, according to the investigation.

One longtime employee who quit last year told the investigator she left due to the office environment.

"The workplace had become demeaning, controlling, untrusting and full of suspicion, and I felt isolated, harassed and abused," she said.

Schwartzenberger was charged last year with a Class A misdemeanor for allegedly using a county credit card to charge about $1,000 in unauthorized expenses during a trip to Las Vegas. He has pleaded not guilty to misapplication of entrusted property and the case is still pending.

A county employee who is a witness in that criminal case told investigators she received a threatening email from Schwartzenberger and she fears retaliation.

The investigation also cited a pattern of applying three-day suspensions or other disciplinary actions that seemed to be inconsistent with the level of offense and examples of demoting ranking officers without due process.

The investigator attempted to interview Schwartzenberger about the retaliation and bullying allegations but he would not do an interview and said he thought the investigation was being illegally conducted, documents show.

Commissioners also referenced "other complaints" about Schwartzenberger in their motion to petition for his removal, but didn't specify what those are. The acting state's attorney was directed to draft a petition for commissioners to review before it's submitted to Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

When reached for comment late Thursday, Schwartzenberger referred questions to his attorney, who wasn't immediately available.

"The truth will prevail," Schwartzenberger said.

Schwartzenberger, a Watford City native and retired Marine, was elected sheriff in November 2014 and has served since Jan. 1, 2015. Prior to his election, Schwartzenberger had worked for the McKenzie County Sheriff's Office for two years before taking a year off to work in the oilfield.

Commissioners placed Schmitz on administrative leave immediately and ordered him to surrender all county property by Friday afternoon. His leave will be paid this week and unpaid beginning with next week's pay period.

Minutes from Thursday's meeting show commissioners plan to further consider disciplinary action, which could include termination.

Schmitz, an administrative lieutenant, also faces criminal charges in McKenzie County for allegedly lying to law enforcement about his prescription pill use and his involvement in a divorce case. He has pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor charges of providing false reports to law enforcement and is scheduled for a trial in November.

Attempts to reach Schmitz for comment through the sheriff's office were not successful late Thursday.

During the bullying investigation, Schmitz told the investigator there is a lack of trust within county departments and with county commissioners, adding that a county commissioner follows him and takes photos.

County Commission Chairman Richard Cayko did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Amy Dalrymple

Amy Dalrymple is a Forum News Service reporter stationed in the Oil Patch. She can be reached at adalrymple@forumcomm.com or (701) 580-6890.

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