County attorney undergoing treatment following DWI arrestCarlton County Attorney Thomas Pertler is currently receiving rehabilitative treatment following his arrest for an alleged drunk driving incident in St. Louis County last week.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Carlton County Attorney Thomas Pertler is currently receiving rehabilitative treatment following his arrest for an alleged drunk driving incident in St. Louis County last week.
“He is at Hazelden [alcohol and drug addiction center in Center City, Minn.] undergoing inpatient treatment,” confirmed Pertler’s wife, Jill, on Wednesday. “We don’t know yet how long that will take. He has only been there since Saturday, and they are still evaluating his situation.”
Pertler, 48, of Cloquet was stopped by a Minnesota State Patrol trooper at 61st Avenue East and London Road in Duluth on July 17 after other motorists and the trooper reported him driving erratically. According to the supplemental report filed by the trooper who made the traffic stop, two separate motorists called Dispatch to report sighting a grey Chevrolet sedan swerving over the lane lines. When the trooper responded and spotted the vehicle, radar on his squad indicated the driver was going over the posted speed limit. He also observed the vehicle, later found to be driven by Pertler, weaving over both the right and left lanes of Highway 61. As the roadway converged into one lane, the trooper reported Pertler’s vehicle swerved over the center line.
At that point, the trooper pulled Pertler over and detected “a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from the vehicle and what appeared to be an almost-empty bottle of vodka on the front passenger seat,” according to his report. The trooper also noted that Pertler’s eyes were red, watery and dilated and stated that many of the questions asked to Pertler were met with silence. Pertler was also unable to produce proof of insurance at the scene.
The trooper further reported that he asked Pertler multiple times where he was headed and where he was coming from, and Pertler finally responded by saying he was headed to Menards in Duluth from his house in Cloquet to buy paint. He later stated he was heading to Duluth from Duluth.
After briefly returning to his squad, the trooper returned to Pertler’s car and observed that the bottle he had seen previously on the front seat was missing. When questioned about it, Pertler reportedly stated, “under,” and when the trooper asked if he had put the bottle under the seat, Pertler responded with, “yeah.”
Subsequent attempts by the trooper to administer field sobriety tests to Pertler proved to be largely ineffectual due to what the trooper stated was Pertler’s failure to fully cooperate with instructions. At that point, a reading of 0.234 was logged, though the trooper stated Pertler had only blown into the PBT device with a very weak breath. He was later tested after being taken to the St. Louis County Jail, at which time he registered 0.32.
Pertler now faces recommended charges of fourth-degree driving while impaired, third-degree refusal to test, speeding (51 mph in a 40-mph zone), driving over the center line, failure to signal, possession of an open bottle and no proof of insurance. According to the state trooper’s report, Pertler displayed a blood alcohol content of nearly three times the legal limit following his arrest.
He is currently slated for a hearing in St. Louis County Court on Thursday, Aug. 16, at 8:15 a.m., according to the office of the St. Louis County Court Administrator’s office.
Pertler’s arrest and absence from his post at the Carlton County Attorney’s office has left officials in somewhat of a tailspin since it is a situation that Carlton County Commissioner Dick Brenner deemed “unprecedented.” Carlton County Auditor/Treasurer Paul Gassert and County Board Chair Ted Pihlman were appointed at this week’s board meeting to work alongside County Coordinator Dennis Genereau in researching what the county’s possible options or sanctions might be moving forward regarding Pertler and his elected office.
“It’s a delicate situation, and we have no comment at this time,” said Pihlman on Monday.
Gassert said to his knowledge no one from the county has been contacted by Pertler since the incident, though he said the county attorney’s office continues to function with existing staffing.
The director of the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility said Thursday he is aware of the seven criminal charges filed against Pertler, but no decision has been made on whether his office will seek disciplinary action.
Under Rule 8.4 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer.”
“In general, if an attorney is arrested and convicted of a [first-time] DWI, in almost all cases there won’t be any disciplinary consequences whatsoever,” said Martin Cole, director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility. “Whether that standard is any different for an elected county official, I suppose there is an argument to be made.”
The Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility is an agency of the state Supreme Court established to handle complaints of unprofessional conduct against Minnesota lawyers. Cole said his office doesn’t have the authority to remove an elected official such as Pertler from office. But if the state Supreme Court suspended or disbarred a county attorney for disciplinary reasons, the loss of the license to practice law would have the same effect as removal from office.
Initiation of criminal charges gives Cole’s office the authority to open an investigative file on Pertler without anyone filing a complaint. Cole said no decision has yet been made whether to investigate Pertler.
Bert Black, legal adviser for the Minnesota secretary of state office, said elected officials also can be removed under Minnesota statute 351.02, which deals with vacancies. It lists eight situations that could invoke an automatic vacancy, Black said, such as the death of an incumbent, a resignation or failure to perform sworn duties.
Black said one instance could relate to a case like Pertler’s: “The incumbent’s conviction of any infamous crime, or of any offense involving a violation of the official oath.”
Black said that clause is usually relevant in felony convictions of elected officials. The Carlton County Board would probably have to make a case that Pertler was guilty of an “infamous crime” and thus should leave office, Black said.
The electorate could also have its say, state statute reads.
Minnesota law allows registered voters to file a petition with the county auditor to remove an elected official from office early. It requires specific facts as to why the official should be removed and the petition would need to be signed by at least 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the preceding election for the office.
If the petition and its allegations are deemed legitimate, a removal election is scheduled.
According to Gassert, one resident has already indicated his intention to file such a petition.
Pertler joined the Carlton County Attorney’s Office in 1995 and has been the county attorney since 2005. The next election for Carlton County attorney is in 2014. Gassert said when Pertler was first elected to office, he subscribed to a “leave of absence” clause that makes it possible for elected officials who previously worked for the county to return to their earlier position at any time within a 10-year time period. Pertler worked as an assistant county attorney prior to being elected county attorney seven years ago.
While board members agree that Pertler’s status with the county is purely speculative until all of the information in his case is known, they want to be proactive in learning what can and/or should be done if he is found to be in violation of his duties.
In the meantime, Pertler’s wife indicated his family is supporting his decision to check himself into rehab.
“On a personal note, the support from friends and the community has been overwhelming to us, his family,” she said. “We love him and support him 100 percent during this healing process.”
Mark Stodghill of Forum Communications contributed to this story.