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Former doctor charged in child porn sting

FARGO -- A former longtime psychologist at the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown who evaluated the public danger of dozens of convicted sex offenders pleaded not guilty Monday in federal court in Fargo to three counts of child pornography.

FARGO -- A former longtime psychologist at the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown who evaluated the public danger of dozens of convicted sex offenders pleaded not guilty Monday in federal court in Fargo to three counts of child pornography.

Dr. Joseph Belanger, 61, will go to trial in September on the charges, which carry maximum sentences totaling 50 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

Until then, he will be under electronic monitoring in his home and be prohibited from using a computer or having any contact with minors, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Klein told him. Belanger was indicted last week by a federal grand jury and turned himself in this morning, said Jennifer Puhl, the assistant U.S. attorney who is prosecuting him.

Reviewing cases

The unusual case has sparked local prosecutors across the state to review case files in which Belanger served as an expert evaluating sex offenders' risk to the public, U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said in a news conference after Belanger's court appearance.

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Belanger also examined sex offenders in Iowa, and news reports today indicated new trials being ordered in the cases of two sex offenders there because of Belanger's indictment.

Until his home can be prepared for electronic home monitoring, including installing a "landline" telephone hookup and removing a computer and a gun Belanger owns, he will stay at Centre, Inc., a Fargo halfway house.

Belanger told Klein his education includes a doctorate and several further degrees.

Steven Light, hired by Belanger to defend him, said his client had agreed to follow the pretrial conditions, which include using no alcohol or drugs. There are no minor children living in Belanger's home, according to court statements.

The case is part of a national investigation run by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Wrigley, who sat in the gallery during Belanger's 15-minute initial appearance hearing this afternoon.

It's unusual because after he was barred from the hospital, Belanger wrote a letter last November to the state Board of Psychologist Examiners admitting he had subscribed to a child porn Web site and that he had suffered "horrific abuse" as a child and had been suicidal, Wrigley acknowledged. Belanger's letter will be part of the evidence in the case, Wrigley said.

Puhl said an investigation of three computers owned by Belanger found multiple images of children portrayed in sexual activity; a fourth computer in his home was not seized as evidence because it contained no child pornography, Puhl told Klein.

Investigators seized a Panasonic laptop, a Dell desktop computer and an Apple desktop computer, including a hard drive from Belanger, as well as about five CDs and six "zip" discs that store computer data. Belanger was charged with one count of possessing child porn and two counts of receiving it in what Puhl said was a case of Belanger subscribing to a child porn Web site.

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Other arrests have been made nationwide in the same far-flung federal ICE investigation over several months, in what is called Operation Flicker, Puhl said.

In his 20 years at the state hospital, Belanger examined sex offenders in North Dakota and other states to determine the risk of their re-offending. Late last year, the hospital's superintendent, Alex Schweitzer, said Belanger was put on leave in October and barred from the hospital grounds after Belanger said that ICE officials had seized his home computer searching for child porn.

Schweitzer said then that a review of about 145 reports Belanger did on convicted sex offenders over 10 years in North Dakota did not find anything inconsistent with professional standards.

But according to a report over the weekend in the Des Moines (Iowa) Register, Belanger's indictment is expected to be a factor in at least one appeal by a convicted sex offender before the North Dakota Supreme Court.

Wrigley said until recently, North Dakota law required some "redundancies" in experts used in sex offender cases, often at least two experts examined sex offenders, which might mitigate the effect of Belanger's indictment on cases of sex offenders he examined.

But state law has changed to reflect procedures in other states, and local courts often don't have the resources to hire more than one expert in a sex offender case, Wrigley said. He said Belanger had never worked as an expert on a federal case in North Dakota.

Wrigley said today that no evidence has come to light that Belanger shared child porn with any patients of the state hospital or with convicted sex offenders he examined.

Wrigley said the child porn images found on Belanger's computer equipment have no innocent explanation and involve "crime scene photos," of sexual crimes being committed against children.

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In his letter to the state board last year, Belanger wrote that he downloaded illegal "pictures of girls who were about the same age I had been" when he was abused as a child. He wrote that he was "frightened of the world and of women, so I mostly used pornography as an outlet," and described it as "compulsive viewing of pornography."

There is no federal statute of limitations on child porn charges, Puhl said. The two counts of receiving child porn allege Belanger obtained the images in November 1999 and June 2007.

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