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3 Clay County sheriff candidates have discipline on their records; one had sex while on duty

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Mark Empting, candidate for Clay County Sheriff.2 / 5
Mark Hendrickson, candidate for Clay County Sheriff. Forum file photo3 / 5
Jason Hicks, candidate for Clay County Sheriff.4 / 5
Scott Steffes, candidate for Clay County Sheriff.5 / 5

MOORHEAD — The work histories of the candidates running for Clay County sheriff show that three of the four men have disciplinary actions in their pasts, including suspensions and termination.

One candidate, Mark Empting, has also acknowledged having sex with a woman while on duty when he was a Dilworth police officer 20 years ago.

The Minnesota primary election is on Tuesday, Aug. 14, with two of the sheriff candidates moving on to the general election in November. Three of the candidates work for the Clay County Sheriff's Office: Lt. Empting, Detective Jason Hicks and Deputy Scott Steffes. The fourth, Mark Hendrickson, is a North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation parole officer.

Through public records requests, The Forum sought the candidates' personnel files from their current and former employers, to learn of any complaints and disciplinary measures they may have faced.

Perhaps the most serious disciplinary action involves Empting, the candidate endorsed by retiring Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist.

While files released by Empting's current employer showed no disciplinary actions, records from Becker County revealed that Empting was fired as a sheriff's deputy there in 1996.

Two years later, the incident in Dilworth prompted Empting's resignation, although that city said his personnel file is no longer available because of the amount of time that's passed.

Hendrickson was not interviewed for this story because his personnel records from previous employers, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, have been purged due to the passage of time.

His current employer, the NDDOCR, said he has no disciplinary actions in his file.

Empting's firing

The Forum requested to interview Empting on Thursday, Aug. 9, to address the firing in Becker County and the resignation in Dilworth. He said he had no time that day to do so.

That evening, during a candidate forum at the Moorhead public library, Empting alluded to those past mistakes for the first time publicly. He sat down for an interview with The Forum the next day.

Empting, 44, was hired by the Clay County Sheriff's Office as a full-time deputy in 2002, rising to the rank of sergeant in 2014 and lieutenant in 2016.

His first law enforcement job was with Becker County, where he worked from November 1995 to February 1996, when he was fired.

A letter dated Feb. 14, 1996, with the subject "Work Ethics & Conduct," states, in part:

"Your actions, while on duty with Becker County, are unacceptable and is the reason for your termination of employment." The letter, however, does not give a specific reason for termination.

Empting responded with a letter to then-Becker County Sheriff Tom Hunt a week later, in which he said he was "not aware of any misconduct or inappropriate activity."

In his interview with The Forum, Empting offered up three situations that could have been factors in his firing.

He said as a 21-year-old deputy, with little to no training, he responded by himself to an incident on the White Earth reservation and learned later that he should have gone with another deputy.

Regarding a domestic dispute, another deputy claimed to a supervisor that Empting told the victim he didn't believe her story because he didn't see any marks on her. According to Empting, he only said he didn't see marks, not that he didn't believe her.

At a third incident, a suspected DWI crash with people standing around the vehicle, Empting wasn't able to determine who had been behind the wheel.

He drove one of the people to their home and told the others to leave. According to him, a letter listing reasons for his firing stated that he'd told everyone at the scene to go home.

Empting chalked it all up to a lack of guidance for a young deputy.

"It's setting somebody up for failure and yeah, I did. I failed at it, but it wasn't as bad as they definitely made it sound," he said.

Empting's resignation

The Forum recently received an anonymous letter critical of all of the Clay County sheriff candidates.

In it, the writer stated that while Empting was on duty as a Dilworth police officer, he had sex with a woman who was taking part in a ridealong in his squad car. A ridealong is when a citizen accompanies an officer on duty in order to learn about law enforcement.

Empting acknowledged that the encounter happened. "It was mutual, it was consensual. It was very embarrassing, and it was definitely an error and a mistake that I had made," he said.

Empting said the incident 20 years ago only came to light back then because he was honest when asked. "There was no complaint about it. The other person involved wanted to see me stay working in Dilworth, but that's not how it turned out," he said.

An internal investigation was launched. Rather than risk termination, Empting chose to resign.

He said the mistake was humiliating and humbling, and working through it has made him a better leader.

Still, he would take it back if he could. "I'd definitely do it, in a heartbeat," he said.

Sheriff Bergquist, who Empting calls a longtime family friend and mentor, said he knew of the incident in Dilworth 20 years ago, but said it "wasn't criminal."

Bergquist also said since Empting started working for Clay County, his personnel file "has been perfect."

Jason Hicks' files

Hicks, 47, joined the Clay County Sheriff's Office in 2006, and works as a detective. Before that, he worked for the West Fargo and Dilworth police.

Both of those agencies said they no longer had his personnel records because of the amount of time that had passed since his employment.

In Clay County, Hicks received a written reprimand in 2014. Sheriff Bergquist said it was because Hicks didn't complete follow-up reports, leading to a pile of nearly two dozen cases on his desk.

Records showed that the same problem was brought up in 2012, for which Hicks received a verbal warning. Bergquist called the lack of attention "concerning."

Hicks said at the time, he was assigned to review hundreds of gun permit applications, causing him to fall behind on some of his detective duties.

"There were no extremely sensitive, serious things. It was the smaller, theft things that kind of went by the wayside," Hicks told The Forum.

While he said he still scrutinizes the most questionable gun permit requests, someone else now handles the routine applications.

In a previously reported incident, Hicks received a one-day suspension in 2015 because of a Facebook post in which he said "Somebody should of stomped his guts out" in response to news reports about a man banned from Fargo's public pools for allegedly taking photos of children.

Hicks said he has his own policy now about social media during work hours. "No way, no how, nothing," he said.

Scott Steffes' files

Steffes, 51, has been with the Clay County Sheriff's Office since 1993.

In 2004, he received notice of a two-day suspension from Sheriff Bergquist related to productivity, stating, in part:

"After being confronted by a supervisor during the previous evaluation process about the issue of idling and loafing, evidence shows your work product, to include your patrol patterns, was far below an acceptable level."

Steffes said the issue was mostly a one-time problem, a night when he wasn't feeling well. Instead of calling in sick, he tried to tough it out and didn't fulfill his duties.

"It's something I'm not proud of. It happened," Steffes said. "I've always had good evaluations except for that one, so that's what I'm basing my record off of, moving forward."

With three of the four sheriff candidates all working in the same department, the competition in the race has been building for some time.

"We all want to win, but there's a little tension there too, I can't deny that," Steffes said.

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