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Carlton County attorney subject of investigation

Thom Pertler

Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler, who was convicted in a drunken driving case in St. Louis County six years ago and won re-election two years later, was the subject of an investigation in 2017.

The investigation, initiated by the Carlton County Board of Commissioners, covered six issues or concerns — among them allegations that Pertler failed to file an important legal brief, sometimes smells of alcohol at work and claimed unearned mileage.

The findings cost Pertler the annual 3 percent raise given to other elected officials.

When asked about the allegations in an interview with the Pine Journal on Tuesday, Pertler called the investigation "a witch hunt." He claims he wasn't aware anyone had complaints or that he was under investigation.

"I think there are some ulterior motives," Pertler said. "I don't know who the people are or what their motivations are."

Carlton County Board Chairwoman Susan Zmyslony confirmed that the county hired an outside law firm to look into concerns last fall. The investigator interviewed 12 people, including Pertler, in November and December. The Pine Journal obtained a copy of the investigative summary after submitting a public data request to the county.

Pertler denied drinking alcohol at work and said people were "mistaken." He admitted, however, that because of his DWI conviction, the allegations are not entirely surprising. Pertler was convicted of third-degree driving while impaired, for refusal to submit to a chemical test. According to state statute, a person who is convicted of refusing to submit to a chemical test is guilty of third-degree driving while impaired, a gross misdemeanor.

They are "the spaghetti (an accuser) would throw at the wall," he said of the accusations.

For his part, the investigator noted that no witness reported seeing Pertler drinking alcohol at work, but "the evidence supports the conclusion that he has come to work smelling of alcohol on multiple occasions over the past several years."

The mileage reimbursements for two meetings in the Twin Cities he did not attend were a mistake, Pertler also admitted. The investigator concluded that his explanation was credible. Pertler also disputed claims of poor morale in the office.

Pertler readily admits that the county attorney's office failed to file a brief in the case of Robert Todd Ferguson, who had allegedly provided a fatal dose of a prescription painkiller to his daughter's friend, but pointed out that it wasn't his case.

Ferguson's conviction was overturned by the Minnesota Court of Appeals last year, partly because of the missing brief.

Pertler told the investigator that he has the authority to assign cases to assistant county attorneys, and that they "learn by doing." He told the Pine Journal he had no way of knowing why the brief wasn't sent to the state attorney general's office, as is the usual procedure.

"What happens is the attorney will ask support staff to mail that down to the AG's office," he said. "I'm not going to throw someone under the bus. Bottom line is, it didn't get mailed down."

That failure and the subsequent coverage in local media did not sit well with the attorney general's office, which has not helped the county with a similar case since then. The investigator cited two letters related to this issue.

In the first letter, the attorney general's office cited its caseload and other factors as a reason for not helping the county.

In the second letter, they stated it is important that the credibility of the attorney general's office and its attorneys "is not undermined with the courts or the public by a county attorney to whom we deliver assistance on his cases."

Pertler told the Pine Journal the attorney general's office has historically offered assistance on a case-by-case basis, and said he's optimistic they will do so again in the future.

"When we get a case, we send it down," he said. "If they say they can't help, we take it back. We've had a few back in recent months, but we've still been 100 percent successful."

The County Board has not taken any formal action since it received the investigative report, other than denying Pertler a pay raise.

Zmyslony said that because the county attorney is an elected official, not a county employee, "the board has no disciplinary authority over that position."

When asked if he is taking any actions as a result of the investigation, Pertler said he is consulting with his counsel. Pertler said this week that he expects to run for re-election this year.

A longer version of this story with additional details can be found at www.pinejournal.com.

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