GRAND FORKS — One judge, one sheriff’s deputy and two special agents with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation are facing a lawsuit that seeks $6 million in damages and accuses them of fabricating evidence and giving false testimony in a high-profile case.
Henry H. Howe, 78, a longtime defense attorney in Grand Forks, was arrested during a meeting inside the Walsh County Courthouse on Jan. 30, 2014, and charged with conspiracy to commit murder and later with criminal conspiracy to tamper with a witness.
The criminal charges against Howe stemmed from allegations by a confidential informant with a lengthy criminal history, including lying to police, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday, Jan. 29. Howe was arrested because authorities believed he was conspiring with two convicted drug felons and the confidential informant, who was the prosecution’s star witness, to kill a key witness in a drug cartel case. The hit was allegedly to benefit Paul Lysengen, one of Howe’s clients at the time.
The case against Howe was dismissed less than four months later by Barbara Whelan, then the Walsh County state’s attorney. Whelan is now a Walsh County District Court judge who is one of the defendants that Howe is suing.
“We filed our brief on May 8, and within an hour she dismissed the case” against Howe, said David C. Thompson, Howe's attorney. “It’s very unusual that a case gets dismissed at all, unless it’s part of a plea bargain. This case? They just bailed. And they ruined this guy’s life.”
Although the charges against Howe were dismissed, the lawsuit alleges he suffered irreparable harm from the coordinated or reckless actions of Whelan, BCI agents Steven Gilpin and Scott Kraft, and Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Deputy Delicia Glaze.
The four defendants were all involved in the initial criminal case against Howe.
Soon after Howe’s arrest, the North Dakota Supreme Court suspended Howe's law license in an emergency action. His license was later reinstated, Thompson said.
Thompson, a Grand Forks attorney, has requested a jury trial to decide the lawsuit, and is seeking $3 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages, plus attorney’s fees.
The lawsuit alleges the defendants either worked together out of malice against Howe, or were recklessly incompetent. The suit also claims the defendants “intentionally or recklessly” cultivated the informant whom they allegedly knew was a “career criminal and habitual liar.”
“Once we put it together and stood back and looked at it, we think they knew about (the informant’s) background. I think it is criminal for them to do something like that intentionally," Thompson said.
The suit alleges each defendant had a personal ax to grind against Howe. “This was basically a case of vindictiveness for Henry doing his job effectively,” Thompson said.
In 2013, while Howe was defending a man accused of eight felony counts of gross sexual imposition and one felony count of reckless endangerment, Howe was able to obtain audio recordings that he believed proved the contact was mutual. He approached Whelan about the matter and, “Ms. Whelan went ‘ballistic,’ screaming at Mr. Howe in her office at the Walsh County Courthouse,” the lawsuit stated.
Whelan later filed complaints against Howe’s physical and mental well-being with the disciplinary board of the North Dakota Supreme Court, according to the lawsuit.
The suit claims Deputy Glaze resented Howe for exposing false testimony given under oath that resulted in a dismissal of a felony drug case. Agents Gilpin and Kraft are also named in the complaint because they allegedly held grudges against Howe for successfully defending clients in property seizure and drug cases.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants failed to investigate or “vet” the informant. In Becker County, Minn., the informant claimed in 2004 that he had knowledge of a murder-for-hire plot, which was later proven bogus, according to the lawsuit.
In a 2004 case stemming from Nebraska, the informant told jail officials of another murder-for-hire plot while he was incarcerated, a claim that was later also proven false. Furthermore, the informant was involved in swindling luxury SUVs from car dealerships in Fergus Falls, Minn., in 2003, 2004 and 2005, the lawsuit stated.
The informant was “just the man for the job for defendants,” the lawsuit stated. “Clearly, the defendants … either had actual knowledge of (the informant's) criminal history … or the defendants acted with reckless disregard of (the informant's) past — a past which was easily discoverable from public records.”
The “deliberate falsehood” or the “reckless disregard for the truth” caused Howe to be falsely charged, jailed and lose his license to be an attorney, the lawsuit stated.
Phone messages left Wednesday for Whelan and Grand Forks Sheriff’s Office Capt. Joel Lloyd were not immediately returned. BCI spokesperson Liz Brocker declined to comment.