Ombudsman: Complaints are justified

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 29, 2002

The most damning complaints by Joe and Patricia Becker about the Mower County Attorney's Office are justified.

That was the conclusion of Laura Goodman-Brown, Minnesota crime victims ombudsman.

The ombudsman exonerated the Mower County Attorney's Office's performance in one other complaint, found still another unsubstantiated and still another only partially justified.

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In all, the ombudsman received six complaints, that were the basis for the report. None of the victims were identified. The Beckers have chosen to make their dissatisfaction known publicly.

So strongly do they believe in the importance of the report, they have circulated the

ombudsman's report to local media.

In an election year of surprises, it is sure to become an issue in the upcoming September primary.

Incumbent Mower County Attorney Patrick A. Oman is facing challenges from his two Assistant Mower County Attorneys. Jonathan Olson, chief deputy prosecutor, and Patrick W. Flanagan, both want their boss' job and will be on the September primary ballots.

Early this summer, Olson -- with Oman's permission and the knowledge of the Mower County Board of Commissioners -- authored a grant application to seek funding to create a new crime victims advocate position in the Mower County Attorney's office.

Not only are victims clamoring for assistance, but so is law enforcement, which has grown increasingly frustrated with the Mower County Attorney's Office.

Only one of the candidates, Flanagan, has the unwavering support of law enforcement officials, who say their are tired of an apparent "catch and release" criminal justice system.

Mower County Sheriff Barry J. Simonson and Austin Police Chief Paul M. Philipp are co-chairs of Flanagan's election committee. Austin Police Detective Sgt. David Schaefer and Grand Meadow Police Chief Jim Richardson also are Flanagan campaign committee officials.

The Beckers, who live at rural Austin, say they are making the ombudsman's report known for specific reasons.

"This report brings to light the serious lack of communication between Pat Oman and law enforcement agencies as well as the lack of cooperation and lack of attention to victims' issues," the couple said in a prepared statement.

"The report states that since 1992, when the current ombudsman took office, the office of the Crime Victims Ombudsman has been contacted on average three times per year regarding the Mower County Attorney Office's treatment of crime victims," the statement continued.

"In the majority of the cases that became investigations, unlike any other county investigated by the office, including the Metro area, the Mower County Attorney has been uncooperative with the investigation."

"Victim issues continue in the Mower County Attorney's Office as evidence by some of the eight complaints that have come into the ombudsman's office in 2000 and 2001,"

"Mower County is in desperate need of change for Mower County Attorney," the statement concluded.

OCVO report's findings

According to the state crime victims ombudsman's report, both the Mower County Sheriff's Department and Austin Police Department "voiced additional concerns" about the Mower County Attorney's Office after the ombudsman received complaints from victims.

The victims alleged mistreatment, crime victims rights violations and excessively lenient plea negotiations.

The OCVO reviewed all felony and gross misdemeanor files for 1997 and 1998 and photocopied 155 individual files.

The investigation also included interviews with local sheriff and police departments' representatives, the county attorney and his staff, Mower County Correctional Services and the Crime Victims Resource Center personnel as well as the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

The OCVC sought to determine if the Mower County Attorney's Office had violated Minnesota statute.

Oman defended the affixes actions, according to the ombudsman, by saying there was a staffing shortage, no funding existed for victims services, no policies existed to ensure communication between the office staff and the Crime Victims resource Center's advocate and that the relationship was "strained."

At the time in question, the Crime Victims Resource Center's director, Tori Miller, and a staff member, Debra Earl, served as a crime victims advocate liaison in the Mower County Attorney Office.

Public safety officials had their own set of complaints. They alleged "too many good cases

are readily dismissed" and cases were pled out with inappropriately light sentences.

Also, delays occurred or refusals to charge cases; especially those involving

criminal sexual conduct and children.

Also, there was a lack of communication, domestic abuse cases were not aggressively prosecuted and, perhaps most damning, "cases involving assaults on law enforcement are not dealt with appropriately."

Lastly, the complaints alleged the Mower County Attorney Office "failed to charge cases where the victim had a criminal record."

In addition to the ombudsman's report, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor's Office conducted a

"best practices review" of public offices and compared

a list of nine practices that would improve a prosecutor's services to the public.

"It is clear the Mower County Attorney Office needs improvement in several of these areas," the ombudsman report advised.

The 31-page ombudsman report concluded complaints the Mower County Attorney Office had

not provided supplemental notices of court hearings to victims.

Also, the ombudsman concluded, the office frustrated crime victims by "failing to appropriately charge cases or accepting weak or inappropriate plea agreements."

Both complaints were determined to be "justified."

Goodman-Brown issued her report in May 2001.

Fully one year and one moth later, the ombudsman was able to inform Joe and Patricia Becker, who specifically requested the response, the Mower County Attorney Office had complied with all of the recommendations made.

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at