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Sheriff removed, awaiting hearing

The sheriff of Rolette County, N.D., has been removed from office pending a hearing to address a laundry list of charges filed by state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

The sheriff of Rolette County, N.D., has been removed from office pending a hearing to address a laundry list of charges filed by state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

Richard Turcotte is accused of "misconduct, malfeasance, neglect of duty in office or gross incompetence," according to Stenehjem's complaint.

The state only needs to prove one of those charges for Turcotte to be ousted, Stenehjem said Tuesday. "But I think we probably could prove all of them."

The complaint says that Turcotte:

- Failed to comply with corrections regulations, leading to closures of Rolette County Jail. Turcotte did not have properly trained staff supervising inmates on "repeated occasions."

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- Allowed individuals not licensed as peace officers to serve as deputies.

- Failed to instruct or require deputies to arrest and keep individuals in custody as directed by district court.

- Authorized, or did not object to, directions from deputies to not arrest individuals for offenses because the county jail was closed.

- Did not keep written records of county property, including firearms, pepper spray, cameras, computers, uniforms or other equipment used by employees of the Sheriff's Department or the county jail.

- Did not have deputies or other employees return their uniforms or other equipment after their employment ended.

- Did not set up drug and alcohol testing procedures for offenders or people out on bail.

Stenehjem said the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation has been scrutinizing Turcotte and his office for several months at the request of Rolette County State's Attorney Mary O'Donnell.

O'Donnell received the BCI's findings earlier this month and consulted with the Rolette County Commission. It was eventually decided Stenehjem should handle the matter.

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"... it is clear to me that I cannot make legal/prosecutorial decisions about these allegations because, as Rolette County State's Attorney, I have a conflict of interest, and I also would be a witness in any legal proceedings that may potentially evolve from an investigation," O'Donnell wrote in a July 18 letter to Stenehjem.

That letter says the allegations include "dereliction of duties by the sheriff, and missing/stolen inventory from the sheriff's office."

Stenehjem said he reviewed the investigation report and filed a civil complaint with Gov. John Hoeven. The complaint was served to Turcotte late Monday, stated a release from Stenehjem's office.

Hoeven has temporarily removed Turcotte from office until an Aug. 13 hearing in Bismarck, Stenehjem said.

The County Commission must appoint an interim sheriff within five days of receiving notice of Turcotte's removal. The commission met Tuesday to discuss its course of action, but did not choose a replacement, said County Auditor Valerie McCloud.

On July 16, the County Commission closed the Rolette County Jail, located in Rolla, because of a series of violations of state laws and regulations, said Steve Engen, director of staff development and facility inspections for the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Engen said the jail was previously shut down Jan. 7 after a Corrections Department investigation found the facility lacking trained staff. It reopened July 7, he said.

During the closures, the county's prisoners were held at other county jails in the area, Engen said.

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The Rolette County Jail, which is allowed to house inmates for as many as 90 days, held an average of 13 people per night in 2007, Engen said.

Messages left for O'Donnell at her office Tuesday were not returned.

The Rolette County Sheriff's Office referred questions to the attorney general's office.

Turcotte said he had no immediate comment on the allegations.

"I really don't want to talk about it because I haven't made up my mind about what I'm going to do," he said.

Turcotte, 61, was a police officer in Belcourt, N.D., for about 17 years before being elected sheriff in 2006 and taking office in January 2007.

Stenehjem said it's rare for the state to seek the removal of an elected official.

"It needs to be a very serious allegation, and I think that exists here," he said. "I have grave concerns about the administration of justice in Rolette County."

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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