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Amy Dalrymple, Published January 07 2008

Concordia case spurs scrutiny

The case of a former Concordia College janitor accused of videotaping nude athletes is focusing attention on campus background checks.

Steven Sopko, who faces seven gross misdemeanor charges in connection with the videotaping, had a theft conviction from a North Dakota State University incident when he came to Concordia in 1999.

Cass County court records say Sopko confessed to taking six keys for a NDSU residence hall. He also admitted stealing a master key to the Memorial Union while he was a custodial employee.

Investigators learned Sopko had other keys from NDSU buildings and his high school he was not authorized to have, records say.

Concordia spokesman Roger Degerman said he can’t comment on whether officials knew about Sopko’s 1996 theft conviction.

“If we had access to information that indicated a red flag, we obviously would not hire that person,” Degerman said.

Concordia does background checks on all custodians and physical plant employees through the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Degerman said.

If an applicant has lived in Minnesota less than 10 years, Concordia requests an FBI background check, he said.

Degerman said he could not say what background search Concordia did for Sopko.

“Whatever was legally required for us, we did indeed do that,” he said.

Sopko, 31, Dilworth, also worked for Moorhead Senior High School from 2003 to 2005 as a night custodian, said Ron Nielsen, the district’s director of human resources.

A background search did not reveal Sopko’s theft conviction, Nielsen said. Moorhead schools routinely do background checks through the Minnesota BCA, he said.

Had officials known about the theft conviction, Sopko would not have been hired, Nielsen said.

“A theft conviction for a custodian that has access to school rooms would not be acceptable, generally speaking,” he said.

Sopko resigned from Moorhead Senior High and did not have any disciplinary items in his file, Nielsen said.

Automated background searches may not always uncover everything in a criminal record, said Moorhead Police Lt. Jim Nielsen.

Nielsen, who was speaking about background searches in general, said errors in how data is entered can sometimes prevent a conviction from showing up.

Concordia fired Sopko the same day Moorhead police arrested him for the videotaping incident.

Court records say a video camera he placed in the air duct of a women’s locker room recorded seven athletes showering.

A search warrant filed last week says Sopko told police he got the idea from watching porn on the Internet.

Sopko has not returned calls seeking comment.

The incident is prompting Concordia officials to take a closer look at hiring practices, Degerman said.

“In a case like this, it’s extremely important to conduct an extensive internal review of our process,” he said.

Another Concordia custodian has a 1999 misdemeanor conviction for harassment in Cass County.

Court records say the man climbed to his ex-girlfriend’s third-floor balcony and ripped a screen attempting to get in.

Degerman said he can’t comment on whether Concordia knew about that offense when the school hired him.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system policy lists harassment as one offense that may prevent a campus from hiring someone to a position that requires access to residence halls.

The MnSCU policy governs Minnesota State University Moorhead and Minnesota State Community and Technical College. It requires background checks for all custodians and other workers with access to residence halls.

The North Dakota University System adopted a new policy last month that requires background checks for certain positions, including custodians, residence hall managers and others with master keys.

Chancellor Bill Goetz said the policy was prompted by an elevated public concern for public safety and legislation that gave the university system authority to conduct the background checks.

Prior to the policy, campuses differed on how they handled hiring, Goetz said.

The legislation was prompted by the death of Valley City State University student Mindy Morgenstern.

Moe Maurice Gibbs, convicted of the offense, underwent a criminal history check when he was hired as a jailer by Barnes County that failed to uncover an attempted premeditated murder conviction.

Gibbs also worked for Valley City State as a night security guard.

Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn

contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590

Concordia case spurs scrutiny Amy Dalrymple 20080107