DWI charge could impact Carlton County attorney's elected office

The director of the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Responsibility said Thursday he is aware of the seven criminal charges filed against Carlton County Attorney Thomas Pertler, but no decision has been made on whether his office will seek disciplinar...

Pertler's mugshot
Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler, 48, of Cloquet, was stopped by a State Patrol trooper at 61st Avenue East and London Road on July 17 after other motorists and a State Patrol trooper reported him driving erratically. (Courtesy of St. Louis County)

The director of the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Responsibility said Thursday he is aware of the seven criminal charges filed against Carlton County Attorney Thomas Pertler, but no decision has been made on whether his office will seek disciplinary action.

Pertler, 48, of Cloquet was stopped by a State Patrol trooper on London Road in Duluth during the noon hour Tuesday after two motorists reported seeing him driving erratically on Highway 61. He is charged with refusal to submit to a chemical test, fourth-degree driving while impaired, speeding, driving over the center line, failure to signal, possession of an open bottle and no proof of insurance.

Under Rule 8.4 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to "commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer."

"In general, if an attorney is arrested and convicted of a (first-time) DWI, in almost all cases there won't be any disciplinary consequences whatsoever," said Martin Cole, director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility. "Whether that standard is any different for an elected county official, I suppose there is an argument to be made."

The Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility is an agency of the state Supreme Court established to handle complaints of unprofessional conduct against Minnesota lawyers. Cole said his office doesn't have the authority to remove an elected official such as Pertler from office. But if the state Supreme Court suspended or disbarred a county attorney for disciplinary reasons, the loss of the license to practice law would have the same effect as removal from office.


Initiation of criminal charges gives Cole's office the authority to open an investigative file on Pertler without anyone filing a complaint. Cole said no decision has yet been made whether to investigate Pertler.

Bert Black, legal advisor for the Minnesota Secretary of State office, said elected officials also can be removed under Minnesota statute 351.02, which deals with vacancies. It lists eight situations that could invoke an automatic vacancy, Black said, such as the death of an incumbent, a resignation or failure to perform sworn duties.

Black said one instance could relate to a case like Pertler's: "The incumbent's conviction of any infamous crime, or of any offense involving a violation of the official oath."

Black said that clause is usually relevant in felony convictions of elected officials. The County Board would likely have to make a case that Pertler was guilty of an "infamous crime" and thus should leave office, Black said.

The electorate could also have its say, state statute reads.

Minnesota law allows registered voters to file a petition with the county auditor to remove an elected official from office early. It requires specific facts as to why the official should be removed and the petition would need to be signed by at least 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the preceding election for the office.

If the petition and its allegations are deemed legitimate, a removal election is scheduled.

Pertler couldn't be reached for comment at his office or his home on Thursday. An assistant in his office referred the News Tribune to Carlton County Coordinator Dennis Genereau to explain Pertler's office status. However, Genereau didn't return a recorded phone message seeking comment.


A phone message was also left with Thomas Proulx, chairman of the Carlton County Board, asking if the board planned to meet to discuss Pertler's status. Proulx didn't return the call.

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin has offered to assist Pertler's office if it needs help.

"I spoke with Thom Pertler and some members of his staff yesterday," Rubin said Thursday. "I assured them that I am available to cover any matters and that our attorneys are also there for them if they need any assistance or coverage during this time."

Pertler joined the Carlton County Attorney's Office in 1995 and has been the county attorney since 2005. He was one of three finalists selected by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty for a 6th District judgeship in 2008. The next election for Carlton County attorney is in 2014.

News Tribune reporter Mike Creger contributed to this report.

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