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McKenzie County loses seven deputies after sheriff's reinstatement

McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger

WATFORD CITY, N.D.—Two months after the McKenzie County sheriff's reinstatement, six officers have left, including three in one day, while another was fired and has filed labor grievances.

Gov. Doug Burgum reinstated Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger in August after his removal proceeding concluded over allegations of bullying and retaliation.

"Sheriff Schwartzenberger's reinstatement and return to his elected position is his opportunity to lead with humility, integrity and respect," Burgum wrote, "and to treat every employee, every elected official and every citizen with fairness."

Former Deputy David Christensen quit Tuesday, which he attributed to a hostile, toxic work environment.

Morale has been "extremely bad," said Christensen, adding that, on Tuesday and Wednesday, everyone shut themselves in their offices.

After he gave testimony in an investigation that preceded Schwartzenberger's removal proceeding, Christensen said he faced retaliatory comments and has been passed over for promotions and specialty trainings.

Christensen said Wednesday he plans to file a state labor complaint and pursue civil litigation.

"I hope that other people understand what goes on at this agency, and it's not a reflection of law enforcement everywhere," he said. "There's still a lot of good officers at that agency."

Christensen resigned effective immediately hours after deputies Gill Brown and Jedidiah Headley also quit, taking new positions elsewhere, they wrote in emails.

Civil Sgt. Bob Perry put in for retirement in August. His last day is Friday, after 24 years with the McKenzie County Sheriff's Office.

He said Schwartzenberger had nothing to do with his retirement, which was prompted by health issues and a desire to travel.

"He's a fine individual, and he's brought the department up to 2017 standards," Perry said of the sheriff. "It's a good organization, and he calls it family and so do I."

Deputy Joshua Phillips and Detective Sgt. Korey Lass resigned on Sept. 14. They took police positions elsewhere this month. The loss of seven officers represents about a quarter of McKenzie County's force. Five new deputies have been hired in the past two weeks.

"If some people leave, that's their choice. I have to run the sheriff's office the way I see fit as the elected sheriff," said Schwartzenberger, who indicated he gave everyone a fresh start when he was reinstated.

Six days after his reinstatement, Schwartzenberger fired the county's K9 officer. Former Deputy Travis Bateman also has filed a charge of discrimination and complaint of retaliation with the state labor department.

Bateman, who was fired for damaging some new concrete, alleges his termination stems from his signing a petition seeking Schwartzenberger's removal.

"I definitely think it was politically motivated for that. There's no denying that I've been vocal that he needed to be removed once I saw the facts that had come out through the investigation," said Bateman, who is pursuing other work and volunteering. His charge and complaint will be sent to McKenzie County, said state human rights director Kathy Kulesa, adding that voluntary mediation is available for the charge of discrimination. Bateman said he's open to that.

"I'd really like to go back to work but, obviously, not under Gary," he said. "When three deputies up and quit on the same day, that to me speaks volumes. His phone should be ringing off the hook right now."

Schwartzenberger said he plans to run for re-election in 2018. He's set for trial in February on a misdemeanor related to nearly $1,000 in unauthorized expenditures on a county credit card at a Las Vegas sheriffs' convention in 2015.

"I'm not being this tyrant that everybody's painting me to be," he said.