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Clay attorney hopefuls spar over qualities

Challengers in the race to become Clay County's next attorney sparred Tuesday over the current administration's professionalism and questioned each other's suitability for the high-stakes job of prosecuting criminals.

Challengers in the race to become Clay County's next attorney sparred Tuesday over the current administration's professionalism and questioned each other's suitability for the high-stakes job of prosecuting criminals.

Candidates Anita Flatt of Hawley and Brian Melton of Moorhead were the final act in a 2½-hour forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Red River Valley.

Flatt told the crowd overflowing the Moorhead Hjemkomst Center's auditorium that Clay County needs change in the wake of the controversial Robert Haseltine and Troy Mayhorn cases.

"In the last year, we have seen the office been plagued with issues of failing to hold a sex offender accountable and condoning prosecutorial misconduct," Flatt said.

"It's time for a change; I offer a fresh start."

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Melton defended the Clay County attorney's office and said the department operates with high standards and employs talented, ethical attorneys.

"My opponent has said the climate is somehow unprofessional and that is not the case," Melton said.

"The attorneys ... are some of the best in the state. They believe in the job they're doing. They bounce cases and questions off each other to make sure we're doing the right thing," he said.

The cases the two referred to sparked criticism of the county attorney's office earlier this year.

Former Clay County attorney Lisa Borgen, now a judge, is under investigation for conduct while prosecuting a 2004 murder conviction recently thrown out by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility is investigating Borgen's handling of a murder case involving Troy Demetrius Mayhorn, who was convicted for aiding and abetting a first-degree Moorhead murder.

The state's highest court threw out the conviction in August citing "unprecedented" prosecutorial misconduct on Borgen's behalf.

She denies the charge. The Clay County Commission recently voted to use taxpayer money for her defense.

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In the Haseltine case, the former Moorhead elementary school social worker was convicted of distributing child pornography and received six months of home monitoring, a suspended imposition of sentence and a $1,000 fine.

A day after the sentencing the Cass County state's attorney's office revealed a police report showing Haseltine had 26 separate images of child porn and had sent some to a Dilworth man.

Acting County Attorney Ken Kohler apologized to the public through local media, stating he failed to give the judge enough information before Haseltine was sentenced.

Flatt said the incidents are evidence the county attorney's office needs new leadership to turn around.

Melton said Flatt's lack of experience prosecuting felony trials would limit her abilities as county attorney.

"She has never prosecuted a felony jury trial," Melton said, noting Flatt doesn't understand how to prepare cases, work with witnesses and other aspects that come as a prosecutor.

Melton said his track record of trying high-profile cases - including domestic assault, drug and murder cases among others - readies him for the position.

Flatt downplayed Melton's remark on her felony trial experience by touting her 10-year record of handling a barrage of employment, family and juvenile law cases.

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"I know the courts, I know the procedures and I know the laws to get the job done," she said.

It's the first time the two took the gloves off in person during a campaign that's seen a share of mudslinging.

Melton, 37, an assistant Clay County attorney, is running for the four-year term from Iraq, where he serves with the Minnesota Army National Guard.

Flatt, 36, at one time considered filing a claim with the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office over concerns Melton lied in his campaign materials by overstating his employment history with the county.

Melton maintains he's worked nine years for Clay County, most recently as a chief drug prosecutor, and all campaign material is factual.

Clay County residents got a chance to hear from other candidates listed on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Highlights included views from candidates vying for the following positions:

- Clay County Commission District 3 seat.

Candidates Jon Evert of Comstock and Mark Olaf Altenburg of Hawley Township discussed the county's development code, zoning and planning issues related to feedlots moving into residential areas and the future outlook of the county's budget.

- Clay County Auditor/Treasurer.

Candidates Lori Johnson and Kenley Just, both Moorhead residents, traded barbs over the county's financial health and reporting/budgeting system.

- District 9 Minnesota Senate seat.

Candidates Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, and Paul Holle, a Republican from Wheaton, reignited the debate over a constitutional marriage amendment in Minnesota.

Holle said a constitutional amendment should have been brought to people of Minnesota.

Langseth said he's been erroneously tagged in support of gay marriage through false ads run in local newspapers in Clay, Becker and Wilkin counties.

- District 9A Minnesota House seat.

Candidates Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, and Diane Wray Williams a retired teacher and Democrat who serves on the Moorhead City Council, differed over cuts to local government aid.

Wray Williams said cities including Moorhead are forced to raise property taxes to compensate for state funds slashed recently to local governments.

Lanning said local government aid over time has gone up, although it's not as high as it once was. Reductions were made to make up for a $4.5 billion shortfall.

"For local governments not to expect a reduction in aid is unreasonable," Lanning said.

- District 9B Minnesota House seat.

Candidate Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, was the lone speaker during the slot allotted for the 9B race. His opponent, Angie Holle of Wheaton, wife of Paul Holle, did not attend.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Melinda Rogers at (701) 241-5524

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