Morton prosecutor fired over 'toxic' workplace environment; pending election complicates matter | Bismarck

An assistant prosecutor who is a candidate for Morton County state’s attorney in the November election was fired Monday by her boss and election rival after an investigation into allegations that she created a hostile work environment.

Assistant Morton County State’s Attorney Gabrielle Goter said she was notified of her termination late Monday. The action will not stop her campaign for the state’s attorney job against incumbent Allen Koppy.

Koppy late Monday sent an email to Goter’s attorney, Tom Dickson, who forwarded it to her.

“I was told in the termination letter that I’m an excellent prosecutor but they don’t believe I can do my job,” Goter said in an interview with the Tribune.

A report of the investigation shows interviews were conducted with 24 people. Among them were Bruce Romanick, presiding judge of the South Central Judicial District; Assistant State’s Attorney Chase Lingle; and several legal assistants and court clerks.

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The report, completed by Kristi Hastings, investigator with Pemberton Law in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, concluded that Goter “has not treated people well within the work environment” and was consistently described as a “workplace bully” by witnesses.

Goter “engaged in disrespectful behaviors” such as “raising her voice, swearing at colleagues, nonverbal displays of anger or frustration, slamming doors, belittling/demeaning others, speaking negatively about one colleague to other colleagues, speaking negatively about other county employees and other stakeholders in the law enforcement and judicial community,” the report states. It outlines “immature behaviors” that “left colleagues feeling like they were walking on eggshells.”

“A toxic environment has been created where the function of the office revolves around Goter’s mood,” Hastings said.

Goter, according to the report, had 183 parking tickets during her employment at the courthouse. Current and former legal assistants “confirmed that they brought payment for these fines to the sheriff’s office during business hours while on work time.”

“The choice to rack up this many parking tickets, coupled with involving colleagues during work hours, sets a poor tone,” the report states.

Some allegations against Goter — preferential treatment, retaliation, disproportionate work assignments — were labeled as unsubstantiated in the report, and no allegations against anyone other than Goter were substantiated. The report also was critical of Koppy, however.

“It is difficult to hold others accountable within the office when leadership has been acting the way that Goter has been allowed to act without intervention by the elected state’s attorney,” Hastings said. “Colleagues have not had a proper mentor or model of professionalism from their direct supervisor, and they have had a disengaged state’s attorney, and this learned behavior will need to be undone.”

Koppy did not immediately respond to email requests for comment.

Hastings did not substantiate allegations about the training environment but stated, “The turnover in the office alone should raise concern about the onboarding and training program.”

Goter said she was scheduled to be in court Tuesday. She got the termination letter by email about 4:15 p.m. Monday, leaving no time to make arrangements for her court appearance to be covered.

“That’s typical of how things are with Allen,” she said, adding “That to me is unacceptable. Our responsibility is to the public.”

An employee filed a complaint against Goter on June 7. Koppy placed Goter on administrative leave June 27 at the direction of the Morton County Human Resources Department.

County Human Resources Director Wendy Bent in August said the complaint was “a general hostile work environment complaint.”

Goter said she has never seen a complaint that named specific employees or incidents, and that during interviews she was asked only what she called “have you ever” questions.

Goter continued to handle cases after being placed on leave, including the July sentencing hearing of a man who pleaded guilty to murder in the March death of a Mandan man. A judge sentenced Wade Bison, 39, to life in prison with no chance of parole.

Goter led the prosecution team in the August 2021 murder trial of Chad Isaak, who was convicted of the April 2019 shooting and stabbing deaths of four people in Mandan. He received four life sentences with no chance of parole. He died of suicide in late July.

Dickson in a statement to the Tribune noted Goter’s victories in high-profile court cases and said she was “fired by her political opponent Allen Koppy in a pathetic attempt to protect his unimpressive and over-extended political career. This is an outrage.”

Goter in continuing to seek the state’s attorney seat said she spent her 13 years as an assistant prosecutor “trying to build back some integrity.” The office has gained professionalism and accountability which she said “are the result of my efforts, not Allen’s.”

“He’s disinterested in what goes on in the office. That’s my biggest concern,” Goter said, adding that law enforcement and social services workers who bring cases for prosecution “deserve better than that.”

In the June 14 primary election, Goter garnered 1,517 votes or just more than 53%. Koppy had 1,333 or about 47%, according to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s website. The top two candidates in the primary move on to the general election. There was not a third candidate. Koppy in 2018 overcame a primary deficit to beat Goter in the general election.

Koppy has been the state’s attorney since 1987. In 1990 and 1994, he defeated Goter’s father, Wayne Goter.

Bent in her statement said Goter was “afforded fairness throughout the investigation.” She also defended the State’s Attorney’s Office, saying it “has a team of highly competent attorneys” and that the county has “a strong relationship with our current attorneys, surrounding state’s attorneys, and the (state) Attorney General’s Office.”

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