MINOT, N.D. — In February of 2019, Glenn Jackson, then the director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation's Driver's License Division, was placed on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation into his behavior with subordinates.
The investigation revealed some behavior that, at least in the eyes of this observer, was completely inappropriate. Jackson ultimately chose to retire on May 3, 2019, never having been reinstated to his position.
But during that time, when he was suspended and ordered not to have contact with any DOT employees, the department continued to use Jackson's signature to authenticate records used in things like administrative hearings concerning license suspensions.
Here's an example of a certification, complete with Jackson's signature, which was issued while Jackson was suspended:
That's problematic, no? This branch of state government was certifying records in serious legal proceedings, with significant consequences, with the signature of someone who couldn't possibly have certified them.
When I asked the DOT questions about this in May of 2019, I was told by spokeswoman Jamie Olson that "we have been advised by our Legal staff that it is department policy for employees to not discuss matters that may be subject to litigation or other controversy unless subpoenaed."
Now the matter is before the state Supreme Court.
Luke Heck, a Fargo-based defense attorney, representing a man by the name of Larry William Hewitt, has appealed his client's license suspension based, in part, on the use of Jackson's bogus signature.
You can read his appellant brief here.
You can read the DOT's brief here.
If you don't want to read through dozens of pages of legalese, I'll summarize things for you.
Heck argues that his client's suspension should be overturned because the hearing was unfair (thanks to the bogus signature), and he wants costs and legal fees.
The DOT, meanwhile, says the signature is irrelevant because, once it had been pointed out, they provided an identical set of records certified by a deputy director who was actually on the job and able to certify stuff.
Who is right?
I tend to be sympathetic to Heck's point of view. The DOT screwed up. What's the point of having someone sign to certify records if that person isn't really certifying anything? The DOT used Jackson's signature to certify documents while he was suspended, and they don't appear to have stopped until after it was pointed out to them that it should be impossible for him to certify anything.
"The Department’s repeated violation of statute — even if not prejudicial to an individual motorist — warrants reversal to ensure the Department acts consistently and predictably in accordance with the law," Heck writes.
Put another way, he's asking the Supreme Court to come down against the DOT in this matter as a way of ensuring they do better in the future.
Which, by the way, is one of the functions of the defense in our adversarial court system. One of our most important lines of defense against government abuse, and government incompetence, in criminal and civil matters are defense attorneys catching the problems and making the state pay for it.
The DOT screwed up here. They should take their lumps.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.