PIERRE, S.D. — After their original decision was questioned by a judge, a South Dakota law enforcement oversight board has again unanimously decided to revoke the certification of a sheriff who has been accused of seven instances of workplace sexual harassment.
The state Law Enforcement Officers Standards And Training Commission on Thursday, Sept. 5, met to consider alternative sanctions for Marshall County Sheriff Dale Elsen, who has admitted to the seven accusations. The accusations range from commenting on women's appearances, to bringing and displaying sexually explicit items to work, to making crass comments about employees' personal lives.
The commission in December unanimously voted to revoke Elsen's law enforcement certification in light of the accusations, but Elsen appealed to the state's Fifth Judicial Circuit. Judge Tony Porta decided in April that the commission had not considered alternative sanctions for Elsen, such as a license suspension or a probationary period, and kicked the case back to the commission, ordering them to examine alternatives.
Elsen, as well as two deputies with the sheriff's office and a former county commissioner, testified Thursday that they thought lesser sanctions would be more appropriate. They pointed to Elsen's election record, as well as a petition signed by over 200 supporters, as evidence that the county still supports Elsen as sheriff.
Asked by Assistant Attorney General Brent Kempema whether public support should direct the commission's decision, Elsen said, "I think public support shows that they support me and how I do my job. ... It should show you folks (the commission) where I am in the community."
After the initial hearing in December, Elsen added fuel to the fire in a public Facebook post he made the night following the hearing. In it, he explained each of the accusations, and called into question the commission's process, writing, "It was apparent that some members of this commission had their minds made up before I spoke."
Elsen also alleged that the commission refused to allow testimony from his supporters. A transcript of the December hearing shows Elsen's counsel was given opportunity to bring forward witnesses and declined. Elsen said Thursday that he regrets writing the Facebook post.
After Thursday's hearing concluded, South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, a member of the commission, said Elsen had a right to a fair and open hearing, which he received.
Elsen, as well as several other testifiers, said they don't believe workplace sexual harassment is confined to the Marshal County Sheriff's Office. Former county commissioner Paul Symens said "it used to be more widespread, but society has changed. Law enforcement has tightened up."
Ravnsborg did not directly answer questions on whether he believes workplace sexual harassment is an issue in South Dakota's law enforcement agencies.
"I'm not for any kind of cover-up or corruption of any kind," Ravnsborg said. "I will address it as I find it. I encourage people, if they think something is going wrong with our government at whatever level, to please notify my office and we'll take a look at it if it's appropriate."
After hours of testimony and executive session discussion, the commission ultimately came to the same unanimous conclusion to revoke Elsen's license. Suspension would ultimately place too much of a burden on lower level officers who would have to shoulder Elsen's responsibilities while suspended, they said. The state doesn't have enough resources to oversee a sheriff's probation. Elsen has already undergone sexual harassment training twice now, and at least one of the allegations took place after his first training.
Elsen declined to comment following the hearing's conclusion. He has served as Marshall County Sheriff since 1983, and was reelected by an 83-17% margin in November 2018. Elsen said during Thursday's hearing that he hoped to serve out the remainder of his four-year term then "walk out quietly."