Charges dismissed against N.D. Department of Human Services director
BISMARCK - A judge Tuesday threw out criminal charges that accused the head of North Dakota's largest state agency of impeding the investigation into the drowning-related death of a 5-year-old girl, but left open the possibility of bringing the c...
BISMARCK – A judge Tuesday threw out criminal charges that accused the head of North Dakota’s largest state agency of impeding the investigation into the drowning-related death of a 5-year-old girl, but left open the possibility of bringing the charges back.
Northeast District Judge Donovan Foughty dismissed the misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to obstruct a government function and refusing to perform a public duty filed in February against Department of Human Services Executive Director Maggie Anderson.
The prosecutor, former McHenry County State’s Attorney Cassey Breyer, asked the judge to dismiss the charges against Anderson and identical charges against DHS attorney Jonathan Alm and Laurie Gotvaslee, director of the agency’s regional center in Minot.
Citing a lack of evidence, Foughty dismissed the charges against Alm late Tuesday with prejudice, meaning the state can’t bring the charges back. He had yet to rule on Gotvaslee’s case.
“The judge made the right decision,” said Alm’s attorney, Justin Vinje of Bismarck.
Breyer recommended dismissing the charges after the judge last week tossed the same charges against former DHS attorney Julie Leer with prejudice.
However, as requested by Breyer, Foughty dismissed the charges against Anderson without prejudice, leaving the door open for the state to refile the lawsuit.
Breyer wrote that the state “is not alleging that the charges against the Defendant are improper,” and she cited additional evidence that arose during Leer’s hearing last week in Devils Lake as her reason for seeking dismissal. She also noted the state may appeal the Leer case.
Attorneys for Anderson, Alm and Gotvaslee all requested their charges be dismissed with prejudice.
Gotvaslee’s lawyer, longtime defense attorney Robert Hoy of West Fargo, blasted Breyer in his motion.
“Dismissal without prejudice would allow her to avoid public responsibility for her ill-advised decision to file these criminal charges, while perpetuating the claim Ms. Gotvaslee and her co-defendants have someone done wrong and likely committed crimes in connection with the drowning death of a young child,” Hoy wrote. “As the Court is well aware, none of that is true and it is an injustice to allow the prosecutor to continue casting suspicion upon blameless professionals while avoiding responsibility for her own wrong-headed charging decisions.”
Breyer, who resigned in June but continued to prosecute the DHS cases while working in private practice, declined to comment. Anderson referred questions to her attorney, Michael Hoffman of Bismarck, who was out of town and unavailable for comment.
The charges filed against the DHS workers stemmed from the investigation into the death of 5-year-old Gracelyn Aschenbrenner, who was found unresponsive in the Velva city pool on June 8, 2015, while under the supervision of the KidQuarters child care center. Breyer alleged that the DHS workers allowed KidQuarters to operate unlicensed, didn’t notify authorities about it and tried to obstruct the state crime bureau’s investigation.
Foughty had previously dismissed a felony charge against a fifth DHS worker, former Early Childhood Services Administrator Jennifer Barry. Barry entered a pretrial diversion agreement under which a misdemeanor count of refusing to perform a public duty will be dismissed after three months if she commits no offenses.
A felony charge of tampering with public records and two misdemeanors are still pending against McHenry County social worker Cheryl Johnson, who allegedly asked DHS to backdate KidQuarters’ expired license to six days before the incident. The center’s operator pleaded guilty in March to felony child neglect and operating a child care facility without a license.