Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published February 05 2013
Brossart case prosecutor resigns abruptly
Manbeck told the Grand orks Herald on Tuesday he emailed county officials Monday that he was stepping down immediately as state’s attorney for the rural county with only three people per square mile.
He said he will continue with his private law practice and tax preparation business in Lakota, N.D. Manbeck also serves as city attorney for Lakota, the county seat, and nearby Michigan, N.D.
Manbeck served two four-year terms as state’s attorney in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After Steve Simonson resigned in 2009, county commissioners appointed Manbeck to the post. There are two years left on his term.
He declined to talk about his reasons for resigning, saying he didn’t want to “fan” any controversy, but rather “let it lay.”
Manbeck said Ramsey County State’s Attorney Lonnie Olson called him Wednesday to say he has agreed to assist Nelson County until the county commission appoints someone to serve the rest of Manbeck’s term.
In recent months, Manbeck was criticized by Sheriff Kelly Janke over his handling of the case against farmer Rodney Brossart, charged with terrorizing and theft after a neighbor’s cattle wandered onto Brossart’s land in the summer of 2011.
Janke regularly had complained at commission meetings about criminal cases not being handled quickly enough or severely enough, based on minutes of commission meetings.
When state District Judge Joel Medd moved the Brossart case to Grand Forks because of defense concerns about getting a fair trial in the small county where Brossart had feuded with many over the years, Manbeck enlisted the help of Grand Forks County State’s Attorney Peter Welte. When news broke late last year that Welte was discussing a plea deal with Brossart, criticism of Manbeck increased from some quarters.
At a county commission meeting in December, Janke called for Manbeck’s ouster, saying he hadn’t worked well with law enforcement getting cases prosecuted and that his several jobs seemed to take him away too much from county business. Janke said the Brossart plea deal was the last straw.
Several neighbors of Brossart at the December commission meeting also protested a plea deal in the case, saying they wanted to see Brossart and his sons spend time in prison because they felt threatened by them.
Commission Chairman Odell Flaagan joined Janke, saying Manbeck had to go.
But Flaagan and Janke quickly learned that like them, the state’s attorney is an elected official and can’t be easily removed unless citizens mount a petition effort.
Like most county state’s attorneys in North Dakota, Manbeck is a part-time prosecutor.
He has refrained from answering back in the news media to Janke’s public criticisms.
But Welte sent a letter to Nelson County officials defending Manbeck’s work and saying he was being unfairly pilloried.
Last month’s news that the plea deal involved all felony counts against Brossart family members going away, replaced by misdemeanor charges, heated the controversy again.
Welte said the plea agreement is appropriate based on what a jury likely would decide based on the investigation of the Brossart case.
“Although Mr. Manbeck does a terrible job of ‘tooting his own horn,’ you should be advised that throughout my office’s assistance in the Brossart matter, he has been consistently vigilant to instruct us that the only acceptable resolution of this matter would be one where the criteria of offender accountability and public safety were both addressed,” Welte said in the letter. “I have found him to be both professional and competent in working with us.”
A judge still must approve the plea agreement.
A graduate of UND’s law school, Manbeck has been a member of North Dakota’s bar since 1976.