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Turmoil in Minnesota sheriff's office as former deputy alleges wrongful firing

Bryan Johnson1 / 2
Itasca County Sheriff Vic Williams 2 / 2

BOVEY, Minn.—Bryan Johnson's time card error turned into a felony charge that kept him on paid leave for more than a year.

The charge was dismissed in March, but in May he was fired from the Itasca County Sheriff's Office, where he was a deputy for 16 years.

Now he's running for sheriff in the northern Minnesota county in November's election, and trying to fix his reputation in the process.

"I didn't do anything to deserve people thinking negatively of me," Johnson said.

In early 2017 he was accused of falsifying timesheets and illegally collecting more than $300 of public money. Johnson asserted it was a mistake and not a willful act.

A Beltrami County prosecutor handling the case on behalf of Itasca County dismissed the charge before a judge could even consider it, giving a two-word explanation in court filings: "Prosecutorial discretion."

But, instead of getting reinstated, an internal investigation led by the Itasca Sheriff's Office found cause to fire Johnson, a 43-year-old father of three who also serves on the Bovey City Council.

"From my observation it seems rather extraordinary to still lose his job despite case dismissal," said Johnson's lawyer, Tom Kelly. "I hope the county can resolve the issue and place him back to work."

Johnson, his lawyer and his former union representative think it relates to Johnson's 2014 run for sheriff against his boss, Vic Williams. Williams has been sheriff of the 72-person office since 2010. He is a former Deer River police chief.

Asked why Johnson was dismissed, Williams said: "I would like it if you would direct that question to HR." He denied allegations that Johnson's dismissal was related to his campaign.

"We made a decision based on the facts. I just can't discuss them," he said. "I expose the county if I discuss anything."

Human Resources Director Lynn Hart did not return a request for comment.

Johnson said he was treated differently than colleagues also accused of wrongdoing, and a former union representative agreed.

"He was acquitted of all external investigations and was supposed to be put back to work," said Tim Hoshal with AFSCME Council 65. "There was different treatment amongst employees."

The Itasca County Sheriff's Office is no stranger to internal strife.

A longtime lieutenant with the office, Mike Bliss, was placed on leave in 2015 and eventually fired after using an interview room to meet with an employee he didn't supervise. An arbitrator ordered the Sheriff's Office to reinstate Bliss. Bliss eventually filed a civil Whistleblower Act lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office, claiming retaliation for reporting alleged wrongdoing within the department. Allegations include the removal of supervisory duties. That suit is ongoing.

Another employee was charged in 2015 with two felonies related to the Bliss case. Office administrator Anna Cass allegedly observed without permission Bliss talking with the employee she supervised — the event that led to Bliss's termination.

"After being charged Cass continued to work for the Sheriff's Office performing her normal duties," the arbitrator wrote in documents for the Bliss case. Both felonies were dismissed.

Former Itasca County sheriff's deputy Troy Ugrich resigned in 2016 amid alleged retaliation for managing Johnson's sheriff campaign, according to court documents. Ugrich then sued the department; a federal judge dismissed with prejudice the case last year.

Ugrich recently said Johnson was "(pushed) right out the door, like I was."

To Johnson, the department's turmoil indicates a bigger problem.

"It's not just about me," he said.

Along with Johnson, Williams will face Jeff Carlson and Ken Weis in the nonpartisan race for sheriff this fall. Carlson is a patrol sergeant with the Grand Rapids Police Department. Weis is a St. Louis County sheriff's deputy who lives in Cohasset.

County sheriff elections can be more complicated than other offices, namely because there are usually candidates running against their superiors. That can lead to hard feelings or worse: In South Dakota, a sheriff's deputy was fired after defeating his boss in a primary election in June.

Johnson said he always wanted to work for the Sheriff's Office and cherishes the time he did, but he'll go back to long-haul trucking if necessary.

"Even if I lose I will be just fine," Johnson said. "The stress will be over."