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Federal lawsuit claims sheriff’s captain was fired over drug money dispute

In this 2014 photo, Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger is shown on patrol for his 34th 4th of July. A former sheriff’s captain, Dan Soumas, has filed a federal lawsuit against Wolfinger alleging that Soumas was terminated for raising concerns about how the department was spending drug forfeiture money. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
In this 2014 photo, Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger is shown on patrol for his 34th 4th of July. A former sheriff’s captain, Dan Soumas, has filed a federal lawsuit against Wolfinger alleging that Soumas was terminated for raising concerns about how the department was spending drug forfeiture money. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

A federal lawsuit alleging that Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger orchestrated the firing of a captain in retaliation for informing the county about possible misuse of drug forfeiture money could soon be moving to a settlement conference, according to court filings this week.

The suit, filed by former Capt. Dan Soumas, claims he was fired by Wolfinger after Soumas alerted the county attorney in 2017 about a plan to spend $30,000 from drug forfeitures to pay a person’s salary at a local non-profit clinic. According to the suit, federal rules mandate that departments can give no more than $25,000 of those monies to non-profit agencies and the funds can’t be used for salaries.

Soumas’ “employment was terminated following his repeated complaints about the improper and illegal use of asset forfeiture funds,” Soumas’ attorney, Larry Beck wrote. Soumas “believes that a major reason for the above adverse actions, if not the only reason, was that (Soumas) made said communications of illegal or suspected illegal activity to command staff.”

The suit further alleges that Wolfinger and Undersheriff Dan Mattos “trumped up allegations of misconduct” against Soumas. Then on Sept. 26, 2017, they gave the longtime department employee an option of being fired immediately or retiring on October 31, 2017, provided Soumas sign an agreement that would release Wolfinger from any liability for how Soumas left county employment.

Soumas asked for additional time on that day to make a decision about being fired immediately or entering the retirement agreement. Wolfinger gave Soumas two hours, the suit states.

On his way out of the meeting, Mattos, according to the suit, told Soumas: “Dan, is your office ready for Neal (Major Neal Robertson) to take over?”

Wolfinger and the sheriff’s department are being defended by Lewiston-based attorney Bentley Stromberg. He was out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment.

But in court records, Stromberg denied most of Soumas’ allegations, except for the fact that he was employed by the county and had received promotions and pay increases during his nearly 30 years at the department.

In a news release Friday evening, Wolfinger wrote that recent news reports “appear to be exclusively based on papers filed in civil lawsuit that was filed a year ago by Mr. Soumas.”

While the sheriff’s office is unable to comment on pending litigation, Wolfinger wrote that as a matter of record, “all dollars donated from the Sheriff’s Office Drug Forfeiture Account to the Child Advocacy Center were donated, legally, after having been vetted through the Kootenai County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Federal Department of Justice.”

Wolfinger also stated in the news release “There was no intrinsic gain to the Sheriff’s Office other than using dollars seized from drug dealers to help investigate and prevent child abuse.”

Earlier this week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush ruled that the attorneys must complete the alternative dispute resolution process within 60 days of all the pending motions, which are due in May.

The dispute that led to the lawsuit, which was filed last year, began on June 1, 2017, when Soumas learned from Mattos that the county was planning to use $30,000 form its drug forfeiture fund to pay for an employee’s salary at the Child Advocacy Center.

Soumas then sent an email to Mattos informing him the arrangements were in violation of federal guidelines, but Mattos responded saying it had been “vetted by KCSO’s attorney,” court records state.

Soumas then contacted the county attorney, who apparently was not aware of the restrictions on forfeiture funds.

A couple weeks later on June 21, 2017, Soumas met with Wolfinger who asked Soumas to sign a document which read: “Effective immediately … all deputies at the rank of Captain are hereby employed at the will of the Sheriff.” The note further replaced any policies that stated that Soumas could only be terminated for cause.

“Fearing that he would be immediately terminated if he didn’t sign the document right then and there,” Beck wrote, Soumas “signed the document.”

He then was terminated following the September meeting where he was given the choice to be fired or remain until October 31 provided that he release the sheriff’s department from any liability about his departure, according to court records.

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