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State Corrections chief blasts Ward County Commission, ex-sheriff

Leann Bertsch

MINOT, N.D. — The decision by Ward County commissioners to request that special prosecutor Seymour Jordan seek dismissal of charges against former sheriff Steve Kukowski has raised the ire of Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Leann Bertsch. The DOC is tasked with monitoring and reviewing jail operations in the state.

Kukowski had been suspended from his position by former Gov. Jack Dalrymple and later had his suspension reaffirmed by current Gov. Doug Burgum. Both governors acted on the advice of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. In mid-April, Ward County commissioners, by a 4-1 vote, agreed to accept Kukowski's resignation and pay him $75,000 as a settlement in return for an agreement by the former sheriff not to sue for defamation or other reasons.

A motion to dismiss two charges of reckless endangerment and one charge of public servant refusing to perform public duty was filed by Jordan, who was appointed by the Ward County Commission. The motion to dismiss was accepted by the court approximately two weeks after filing. The acceptance meant Kukowski avoided a criminal trial.

"We were actually hoping it would go to trial so the public would know all the details," said Bertsch. "All the details should come out now so Kukowski can't deny just how poorly he was running the jail."

Northeast Central District Court Judge Lolita Romanick said at a December 2016 hearing the Kukowski matter "as it is charged needs to proceed to trial." Romanick would later sign the order of dismissal.

The death of inmate Dustin Irwin in October 2014 led to scrutiny of the Ward County Jail by the Department of Corrections. The investigation determined overcrowding and a lack of required employee training were among the issues needing prompt attention. However, said Bertsch, she was faced with surprisingly uncooperative officials in Ward County.

"I've been here 12 years and dealt with other jail compliance actions and this is the most egregious situation I've ever run into," said Bertsch. "The response was to protect the sheriff and act like there was nothing wrong. That was really surprising to our department. The response was anger toward us. There was a lack of understanding of how serious the situation really was."

Bertsch says there was "a deep seated culture" at the Ward County Jail that will take time to change. She said interviews conducted by investigators included statements from jail staff saying "inmates don't deserve medical care" and "more bullets will take care of the issue." Although a recent report from the DOC has noted significant improvements in management and operation of the Ward County Jail, the jail monitor remains in place at county expense and possibly will remain on assignment for several more months.

"These were pretty serious allegations," said Bertsch.

Commission Chairman Larry Louser, Commissioners Alan Walter, Shelly Weppler and Jim Rostad voted in favor of asking for dismissal of charges against Kukowski and to pay him $75,000 as part of the terms of his resignation. Commissioner John Fjeldahl voted against the motion. Those who voted in favor of the motion said they did so out of financial concern for Ward County.

The commission had voted in June 2016 to continue paying Kukowski his regular salary while suspended. With his resignation, that cost of more than $9,700 a month plus benefits goes away. Ward County also was paying expenses of a special prosecutor, which had amounted to $1,173.

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