Nelson County sheriff seeks ouster of state's attorney
LAKOTA, N.D. -- Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke told county commissioners here Thursday it was time to remove State's Attorney Doug Manbeck from office.
He's complained for months about Manbeck's work habits, Janke said.
County commission meeting minutes confirm that.
But Janke said he was really upset to learn last week that Manbeck had asked a Grand Forks prosecutor to negotiate a plea deal with local farmer Rodney Brossart over felony charges from an armed standoff with the sheriff and his deputies in the summer of 2011.
"That case should go to trial," Janke said.
In his nearly three years in office, Manbeck increasingly fell behind in disposing of cases, and often forgets to notify deputies to appear as witnesses and appears "confused" about details of cases, Janke told the five commissioners.
"When is enough enough?" the sheriff said.
Manbeck was in Fargo Thursday at a tax seminar, said his wife, who also is his assistant in his private law practice in Lakota. Manbeck didn't return a call to the Herald Thursday.
Commission Chairman Odell Flaagan said he agreed that Manbeck had to go.
He and Janke met a year ago with North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem about it, hoping Stenejhem would help "get him off his butt."
The commission tried to put through a conference call Thursday to Stenehjem in Bismarck, but he wasn't available at the time. He later called Flaagan.
Stenehjem told the Herald he later called Flaagan. He said he explained to Flaagan that Manbeck is an elected official and the attorney general can't simply step in and manage a county affair.
State law says any such removal of a county prosecutor begins with a petition of at least 50 residents of the county, which can go to the governor's office, Stenehjem said.
This year, the number of cases in state district court in Lakota is up 48 percent, Janke said. "We are filing a lot more cases but we don't have enough court dates in Nelson County. Our cases are being moved way too far down the road."
Manbeck being in Fargo Thursday illustrates the problem, the sheriff said.
Besides being part-time state's attorney, Manbeck also is city attorney for Michigan and Lakota, runs his own private law practice and also does people's taxes, Janke said.
"When is he wearing the state's attorney's hat," he asked the commission.
Many county prosecutors in the state do wear more than one hat.
About 30 of the state's 53 counties have part-time state's attorneys, who are elected county officials, not state employees, said Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State's Attorneys' Association. In two situations, two or more counties have joint powers agreements, sharing a prosecutor. Twenty-three counties have full-time state's attorneys, Grand Forks County among them.
But the Brossart case is what brought a dozen or more people to Thursday's meeting.
Manbeck appointed Grand Forks County State's Attorney Peter Welte and one of his assistant prosecutors, Jason McMarthy, to help on the case, Welte told the Herald Thursday.
Talks with Brossart's attorney, Bruce Quick, have led to a plea agreement that should be finalized within a week or so, Quick said Thursday, confirming Welte's account.
Welte said he spoke Thursday to Flaagan, too, and agreed to meet with the commission Monday morning to talk about the case.
"I don't know what the history is out there with Brossart and his neighbors," Welte said. "I know when we were asked to assist in the case, we just take a look at the file given to us and the level we can get these adjudicated, whether at trial or with a plea agreement."
Nothing is finalized yet, Welte said. But he pointed out that any plea agreement would include, by definition, an admission of guilt to a crime by a defendant.
Brossart, 56, and four of his children -- Jacob, Thomas, Alex and Abby, all in their 20s -- were charged with felonies in June 2011 after Janke tried to arrest them in a confrontation stemming from their refusal to return three cows and three calves that had wandered from a neighbor's pasture.
Brossart's wife, Susan, faces a misdemeanor charge of lying to law enforcement. She and the four children are represented by Fargo attorney Ross Brandenborg; all the Brossarts' charges are being tracked together.
Fear of family
Susan Anderson, mother of the rancher whose cattle wandered on to Brossarts' land 18 months ago, told the commission Thursday that, for decades, her family has lived in fear of the Brossart family, which has a history of contention with neighbors, including law suits.
"It's my family I have to worry about," she said.
Her husband, Tom Anderson, told the commission his family carries firearms in their pickups, tractors and combines because of fear of the Brossarts. "Those three boys are going to kill somebody," Anderson said of Brossart's sons.
The county commission agreed to talk to Welte and Manbeck about stopping the plea agreement.
Brossart's attorney said that probably won't work.
"County commissions don't prosecute cases, nor do sheriffs," Quick said. "They are handled by elected lawyers who know the law and what the facts are."
Quick said he won't try the case in the news media by divulging details of negotiations with Welte. "But I don't know how anyone can criticize the Grand Forks County state's attorney's office."
Reports of Thursday's angry words about the Brossart case at the Nelson County Commission meeting, Quick said, "does speak to the likely unfair prejudice that exists in that county," about his client.