Brossart plea leaves bad taste for Nelson County Sheriff
Feb 10, 2013 (Grand Forks Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Nelson County (N.D.) Sheriff Kelly Janke has promised to push for a citizen-initiated grand jury as part of his protest of a plea agreement in the Rodney Brossart terrorizing case.
That news led to quick musical chairs of prosecutors in the high-profile case in the past 10 days.
Brossart and four of his adult children had faced felony charges stemming from his June 23, 2011, arrest on his farm southeast of Lakota, N.D., over refusing to return six head of cattle that wandered from a neighbor's pasture. Each felony count could mean up to five years in prison.
The unusual case that involved a several-month, slow-motion standoff as the Brossarts became international news when it was learned Janke took up federal agents' offer of a drone to surveil the Brossart sons June 24 to make sure they were not armed before he arrested them.
Plea deal still awaiting judge's decision
Grand Forks County State's Attorney Peter Welte, assigned by Nelson County State's Attorney Doug Manbeck last fall to assist on the case since it was in Grand Forks, reached a plea agreement with attorneys for the Brossarts in December.
Still awaiting approval by state District Judge Joel Medd, the plea deal would reduce all charges to misdemeanors in return for the Brossarts' guilty pleas. Welte told the Herald he was confident the agreement reflected what a Grand Forks jury likely would find in the case.
Janke reacted angrily to news of the plea deal in December, saying the case should be decided by a jury and urging Nelson County commissioners to oust Manbeck as prosecutor. An angry email from Janke to Welte on Jan. 30 led to Welte stepping down his ad hoc assistance the same day, via email to Manbeck.
Minutes after getting Welte's email, Manbeck told Nelson County officials he was resigning as state' attorney effective Feb. 4.
On Tuesday, Nelson County commissioners appointed Ramsey County State's Attorney Lonnie Olson as interim acting state's attorney on a per-hour contract.
Sheriff: Will seek grand jury
On Jan. 30, Welte responded to an email from Janke about the sheriff's concerns about the Brossart case. Welte wrote he hoped the judge soon would rule on the plea agreement "one way or another."
"If we do end up having trials in these matters," Welte wrote Janke, "We need to preserve a jury pool."
Within minutes, Janke shot back an email to Welte: "I cannot allow this plea agreement, justice will not be served if this was to take place.
"It is the people's constitutional rights to serve as a juror, you on the other hand have chosen to take away this freedom from the PEOPLE!
"I should keep you advised that it is our intent to seek signatures from the PEOPLE of Nelson County for the purpose of a grand jury, this will allow the citizens of Nelson County the opportunity to see and hear all the facts, most of which have fallen on deaf ears!"
North Dakota law allows citizens to petition such a grand jury to consider alleged crimes.
GF prosecutor troubled by 'lobbying'
Hours later, Welte emailed Manbeck, saying his office was stepping off the case. It had been a courtesy assistance, not uncommon between county prosecutors, with no payment to Grand Forks County.
Since the plea agreement had been reached and was on the judge's desk, it seemed his work was complete, Welte wrote in the email.
But Welte also told Manbeck he found Janke's statements about a grand jury troubling.
"It appears he is essentially lobbying the citizens of the county to disrupt the processes of the judicial system, irrespective of the roles we all share as officers of the court and irrespective of the law of the state of North Dakota," Welte wrote Manbeck. "This working relationship is untenable and unsustainable."
And within minutes of that message from Welte, Manbeck emailed Nelson County Auditor Jack Davidson a two-line resignation:
"For obvious reasons, I am resigning as Nelson County State's Attorney effective Monday, February 4, 2013."
Manbeck remained reluctant to comment on the matter, saying he didn't want to stir the controversy. He said Welte's stepping down from the Brossart case had little to do with his own resignation.
He was a part-time prosecutor, paid $3,200 per month plus benefits, and had been elected three times to four-year terms the past 25 years, as well as appointed once by commissioners to fill out someone else's term.
Manbeck will continue his private law practice and tax preparation business; he's also city attorney for Lakota and nearby Michigan.
On Friday, Janke said he now was concerned about the county's legal position after Welte and Manbeck resigned. Interim prosecutor Lonnie Olson told him last week he had no interest in getting involved in the Brossart case, Janke said.
"I have a concern that nobody is, at this time, representing the state in the case versus Brossarts," said Janke.
As the arresting officer in the Brossart case, Janke and his deputies are listed as possible witnesses in the case if it were to go to trial.
"I represent the sheriff's department but I also represent the citizens of Nelson County," Janke said. "I haven't backed down from the position that I feel very strongly this case needs to go to a jury trial."
Welte said professional rules keep him from commenting specifically about Janke's statements on a pending case.
"As an officer of the court, I am bound to making sure this case gets tried within the justice sytem," Welte told the Herald. "And it undermines the system for an officer of the court to take the matter to the media before the case is adjudicated."
County's prosecutor pool shallow
Whatever happens with the Brossart case, it may not be easy to find a replacement prosecutor for Manbeck. Like most counties in the state, Nelson County has a part-time prosecutor. Court is held every other Friday.
The county already is advertising for a prosecutor -- including at UND's law school -- to serve out the two years remaining in Manbeck's term.
Davidson said he's heard already from an attorney in a nearby county showing interest.
But the pool of obvious candidates is small.
State law says the prosecutor is to reside in the county and aside from Manbeck, only two other attorneys are numbered among Nelson County's 3,000 souls, Davidson said.
There's little doubt the county will think about forming a joint powers agreement with another county to share a prosecutor, as happens in one or two other counties in the state, Davidson said. That would solve the spare residency issue.
"I think they will look at all the options," Davidson said of the five commissioners, who met Tuesday for their regular monthly meeting.
Brossart case mentioned in Time
The cover story this week in Time magazine references the Rodney Brossart case as the first use of a military Predator drone in the arrest of a U.S. citizen.
As it stands, the drone issue was muted, if not rendered moot, in the case in August when state District Judge Joel Medd ruled the drone's use had almost no relevance to the felony counts or the substance of the arrests.
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