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Nude photo texted by Cass County lieutenant shakes up sheriff race

The deputy who received the photo questioned whether the incident was swept under the rug, but Sheriff Jesse Jahner defended his decision since it was Lt. Tommy Ray's first policy violation with the department.

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Cass County Jail.
Forum file photo
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FARGO — Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner has been criticized internally over how he disciplined a lieutenant who used an office-issued cellphone to send nude photos of himself to his wife and, accidentally, to a sheriff's deputy.

Jahner explained in a six-page memo what prompted him to issue a written reprimand to Lt. Tommy Ray.

The lieutenant sent a nude photo of himself to a deputy on Sept. 5, 2021, using his county-issued cellphone, according to investigative documents The Forum obtained through a public records request on Monday, Oct. 3.

Ray contacted Jahner the same day and said he tried to delete the photo so the other deputy couldn’t see it, but he was unable to, the documents said. The lieutenant also acknowledged using the phone to send other nude photos to his wife, an internal investigation report said.

The memo, along with an email that Jahner sent to his staff, text messages from Ray and a censored version of the nude photo Ray sent the deputy, was emailed to local media on Monday from an address called "Code4 Media."

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This wrinkle emerges about a month before the Nov. 8 general election. Jahner is facing a challenge from one of his own deputies, Mathew King, in what is the sheriff's first reelection bid.

Jahner said he didn't want to speculate on why the memo and texts were sent to local media on Monday. The Forum couldn't determine who sent the memo and texts. The Forum sent an email to Code4 Media seeking comment, but received no reply.

The Forum obtained a sheriff's office email that was sent to Jahner that said human resources recorded King as the only requester of the internal investigation file. Though, the texts and nude photo (the ones sent to local media on Monday) were not part of the investigation file, said Capt. Joel Stading, who investigated Ray's messages.

The sheriff's office confirmed Tuesday that Code4 Media submitted a request Sept. 26 for internal investigation files for all complaints against the department's employees during Jahner's time as sheriff, but that request had not been fulfilled as of Tuesday.

King told The Forum he was not behind the leak and that he didn't know what Ray's texts said before the newspaper showed him. He acknowledged getting Jahner's six-page memo from the internal investigation file, but he didn't get the full file.

King said he showed the memo to others in the office because they wanted to see it, but he doesn't know whether copies of the document were made.

"I am not Code4," King said. "I don't know who Code4 is."

'Totally at fault'

Ray told The Forum on Monday he didn't have his personal phone with him when he tried to send the naked image. He said it was "something that was quite stupid for me to do."

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"I'm totally at fault," Ray said. "I'm not blaming anybody."

He was written up for prohibited use of electronic communications devices.

“Lt. Ray used very bad judgment and made a very bad decision by using his department-issued cellphone in this manner,” Jahner said in the memo. “I am extremely disappointed with his behavior. He is supposed to set the example and be a leader for others, and that was not the case here.”

Ray did not intend to send the naked photo of himself to the deputy, nor did Ray intend to harass the deputy, the internal investigation determined. It was his first policy violation with the department, the documents said.

In speaking with Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick, it was determined Ray did not commit any crimes, a memo said. The North Dakota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board also reviewed the incident but ruled it couldn’t take action against Ray, according to a letter the POST Board sent to Jahner on Sept. 19, 2021.

"I feel like we followed our investigative process like we normally do," Jahner told The Forum.

In January, Jahner informed the deputy who received the nude photo that the investigation was closed, the memo said. However, the deputy raised concerns about how the investigation was handled, according to the memo.

The deputy said, according to the memo, he was disappointed about the overall process, adding he felt the incident was “swept under the rug” and would have been handled differently if he was a woman.

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The deputy felt Jahner didn't give him the support he needed, that the investigation took seven weeks and that the situation wasn't taken seriously, the memo said.

Disciplinary decision

The sheriff also defended his decision in how he disciplined Ray since it was the lieutenant’s first offense. The documents detailing the investigation and disciplinary action were put in Ray’s file and are public record.

Jahner noted the deputy didn't disagree with the disciplinary action, but the deputy said he feels some people have been disciplined more harshly for less, according to the memo.

When asked why the incident didn't call for termination, the sheriff noted that his office doesn't terminate others for policy violations, especially on their first offense.

"I get that some people might think that this was an embarrassing or egregious thing, but it's still at the end of the day a policy violation," he said.

Jahner said he would have handled the situation the same way regardless of the genders of those involved.

Ray said he felt Jahner did a thorough investigation and treated him fairly. The lieutenant said people make mistakes and that part of his job is coaching people to become better.

In a late March email, Jahner told his staff that they were welcome to discuss the incident with him and human resources. He asked in the email that employees stop discussing the matter in "group messages, emails or talk" out of respect for the privacy of those involved.

Jahner also cited a policy that prohibits disparaging remarks or conduct that could "disrupt the efficiency of the office" or would discredit any employee. Policy also bans "false, misleading or malicious statements" meant to harm the reputation, authority or official standing of the office or a staffer.

"From time to time, I was hearing that people were still talking about it," Jahner said. "At that point, the person who had sent the messages had already accepted their discipline. ... I just didn't think that people needed to keep reliving that and hearing that people were continually talking about it."

Ray said he didn't feel his job has been made more difficult to perform since the incident.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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