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Prosecutor resigns with criminal cases pending against ND Human Services officials

BISMARCK - The prosecutor who charged several high-ranking North Dakota Department of Human Services employees with conspiring to impede the investigation into the drowning-related death of a 5-year-old girl last summer has resigned, along with t...

BISMARCK – The prosecutor who charged several high-ranking North Dakota Department of Human Services employees with conspiring to impede the investigation into the drowning-related death of a 5-year-old girl last summer has resigned, along with the special prosecutor helping her with the cases.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Cassey Breyer resigned on May 3, informing the County Commission in a letter that she has taken another job and her last day will be June 29.

In February, Breyer charged DHS Executive Director Maggie Anderson with conspiracy to obstruct a government function and refusing to perform a public duty for allegedly allowing the child care facility in Velva that was in charge 5-year-old Gracelyn Aschenbrenner to operate unlicensed and for not notifying authorities about it.

Breyer brought the same misdemeanor charges against DHS attorneys Julie Leer and Jonathan Alm and Laurie Gotvaslee, director of the North Central Human Service Center in Minot. Former DHS Early Childhood Services Administrator Jennifer Barry also was charged with felony conspiracy to tamper with physical evidence for allegedly telling an employee to delete email conversations about the case.

All are contesting the charges.

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Barry’s attorney, Tyrone Turner of Bismarck, said Breyer told him Monday that she still plans to prosecute the DHS cases as a special appointed prosecutor for McHenry County. Breyer did not return messages left Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning.

Lawyers for all five defendants received a letter Monday from Divide County State’s Attorney Seymour Jordan informing them that he also was resigning as special prosecutor.

Jordan wrote that his intent was “to merely provide guidance” and that he likely wouldn’t have agreed to be special prosecutor if he’d known Breyer “had intentions to leave halfway through these cases.”

Breyer graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Law and was admitted to the North Dakota bar in October 2013. She was appointed McHenry County state’s attorney in January 2014 and ran unopposed for the job in November 2014 election. Her current annual salary is $65,940, according to the county auditor’s office. The resignation letter doesn’t specify her new job.

Breyer’s resignation was submitted the same day she filed information listing the state’s witnesses in the DHS cases. Among them is Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who had directed a state Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent to continue to investigate the matter and hold all public employees accountable related to Aschenbrenner’s death and the subsequent “cover-up,” according to the agent’s affidavit.

Aschenbrenner was found unresponsive June 8 in the Velva city pool and remained on life support until she died July 1 at a Fargo hospital. KidQuarters operator Heather Tudor pleaded guilty in March to felony child neglect and operating a child care facility without a license. Felony charges also are pending against a McHenry County social worker who allegedly asked DHS to backdate the facility’s expired license to before the drowning incident.  

Gotvaslee’s attorney, Robert Hoy of West Fargo, said he was “as perplexed as anybody else” by Breyer’s resignation and hoped that she would stay on the DHS cases “until the judge dismisses them.”

“I think it was misguided to bring the charges in the first place, because there’s no crime here,” he said.

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Leer’s attorney, Mark Friese of Fargo, filed a motion Monday asking the judge to dismiss the charges against her, arguing that Leer, a special assistant attorney general, was only following the deputy attorney general’s advice when she initially advised DHS to obtain outside counsel and have employees decline police interrogation requests.

“The selective and vindictive prosecution of state employees for following the directions of the Attorney General’s Office cannot stand,” he wrote.

An advisory group created by Gov. Jack Dalrymple began looking last month at ways to improve the state’s child care licensing process after the investigation revealed potential gaps, including the DHS practice of allowing providers to operate with a lapsed license while their renewal paperwork is being reviewed for approval.

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