DHS officials face conspiracy charges related to child drowning investigation
BISMARCK - The head of North Dakota's largest state agency and four of its employees are accused of conspiring to block an investigation into a childcare provider whose license was expired when a 5-year-old girl under its care drowned last summer.
BISMARCK – The head of North Dakota’s largest state agency and four of its employees are accused of conspiring to block an investigation into a childcare provider whose license was expired when a 5-year-old girl under its care drowned last summer.
Department of Human Services Executive Director Marget “Maggie” Anderson, 48, was charged Friday in McHenry County District Court with conspiracy to obstruct a government function and public servant refusing to perform a duty.
Both are Class A misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail and $3,000 fine.
The same charges were filed against DHS attorneys Julie Leer, 52, and Jonathan Alm, 39, and Laurie Gotvaslee, 54, director of the North Central Human Service Center in Minot.
DHS Early Childhood Services Administrator Jennifer Barry, 42, also is charged with felony conspiracy to tamper with physical evidence for allegedly directing an employee to delete email conversations about the case. Barry denied giving that directive, according to an affidavit filed with the charges.
The 43-page affidavit by state Bureau of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Craig Zachmeier outlines alleged actions by DHS officials to backdate a license for the day care after the drowning incident and to impede his investigation.
According to the affidavit:
The operating license for KidQuarters day care in Velva had expired one week before 5-year-old Gracelyn Aschenbrenner was found unresponsive in the Velva city pool on June 8. The girl died July 1 at a Fargo hospital.
Heather Tudor, the day care’s operator, was charged with negligent homicide, felony child neglect or abuse and operating a child care facility without a license. A jury trial is set for April 4.
The day after the pool incident, DHS employee Alysha Berg sent an email to multiple DHS employees – including Anderson and Leer – notifying them that the day care’s license had expired June 1 and DHS was waiting on relicensing documents.
“Supervisory staff and command staff at DHS knew the day care was not licensed, yet allowed it to operate unlicensed until issuing new licenses after June 22,” Zachmeier wrote.
When Zachmeier served a search warrant Aug. 19 at the day care, he saw a license on the wall certifying that it was licensed from June 2, 2015, through June 1, 2016.
However, when he questioned Berg by phone the next day about whether KidQuarters was legally licensed on the day of the pool incident, she said it wasn’t and that she had backdated the license to June 2.
McHenry County social worker Cheryl Johnson, who allegedly submitted an application to DHS on June 16 asking that the license be backdated to June 2, was charged in September with felony criminal conspiracy, felony tampering with public records and two misdemeanors.
When Zachmeier went to the Minot human service center on Aug. 24 to interview Berg in person, Gotvaslee, the center’s director, told him they had received legal advice not to allow him to talk to Berg. Gotvaslee later told Zachmeier that she had been on the phone with Leer and Anderson “and they didn’t want Alysha (Berg) talking,” the affidavit states.
When Zachmeier later asked Berg why the day care was allowed to operate without a license and was going to be allowed to reopen Aug. 25, she said, “it was such a mess people wanted to cover it up,” the affidavit states.
Bismarck attorney Michael Hoffman, who was retained by Anderson on Tuesday, said she did not know the license was backdated and she plans to plead not guilty. Initial court appearances are set for March 23.
“She didn’t act with knowledge of wrongdoing, if there was any wrongdoing,” Hoffman said.
As for the charge of impeding the investigation, Hoffman said DHS officials “were simply trying to figure out what they should be doing” as they dealt with the BCI, which is overseen by the attorney general’s office, and received advice from their own attorneys, who have special assistant attorney general status.
“It’s a catch-22 kind of thing,” he said.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Tom Trenbeath said he couldn’t comment on the ongoing case. He said the attorney general’s office provides legal counsel to DHS and other state agencies but does not provide criminal defense for individual state employees charged with crimes.
With more than 2,000 employees and a $3.5 billion budget, DHS is the state’s biggest agency. Gov. Jack Dalrymple appointed Anderson as interim executive director of DHS in August and named her permanent director in April 2013.
No action had been taken any of the DHS employees, Dalrymple spokesman Jeff Zent said Wednesday afternoon.
“We take seriously any charge against a state employee,” Dalrymple said in a statement. “We will take the necessary time to be informed of the facts of the situation, and then determine if any action is necessary regarding their employment responsibilities.”
McHenry County State’s Attorney Cassey Breyer could not immediately be reached for comment.
Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at email@example.com .