A Minnesota county sheriff was allegedly drunk at work while armed. Police never investigated it as a crime. Why?
The accusations set off a series of events which led the Mower County sheriff to threaten legal action, police refusing to investigate him and a county attorney to wish that police had done more.
AUSTIN, Minn. — Steve Sandvik has been the sheriff for Mower County since 2018 and has been with the sheriff’s office for almost three decades.
“My experience with Sheriff Sandvik is that he holds himself to high standards. He works long hours and would give the shirt off his back for anyone,” Mower County Administrator Trish Harren wrote in a November 2022 email to the Rochester Post Bulletin. “Perhaps to the detriment of taking care of his own health and well-being.”
He won re-election on Nov. 8, 2022.
Less than two weeks later, he would be accused of being intoxicated at work, setting off a series of events where legal action has been threatened against the county administrator, a police force has refused to answer why the sheriff was given a free pass, and a county attorney has simultaneously commended the police and expressed a wish that police had done more.
This story is based on a series of interviews and documents obtained from public data requests over several months following the disclosure of an investigation into Sandvik’s work behavior, as first reported by the Post Bulletin.
Mower County Commissioner Mike Ankeny responded to the Post Bulletin that he declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation. All other Mower County commissioners did not respond.
What's known, what isn't
A county employee reported to Austin Police Capt. Todd Clennon that Sandvik had been drinking and seemed to be intoxicated at the Mower County Law Enforcement Center on Nov. 16, 2022, according to a report by Jordan Soderlind, an attorney for Ratwik, Roszak and Maloney, a law firm retained by the county to investigate the incident.
Clennon determined that Sandvik was intoxicated based on Sandvik's manner of speech, demeanor, bloodshot eyes and the smell of alcohol on his breath.
"The idea of Sheriff Sandvik driving in that condition was the leading concern. Adding to the discomfort was the fact that Sheriff Sandvik is an elected official and, as sheriff, the highest law enforcement officer in the county," Soderlind wrote in his report.
What happened next is murky. Citing pending litigation, the full investigative data has not been provided by the county after Sandvik sent a cease and desist order to Harren. In it, Sandvik said she had violated his privacy rights by talking to the public.
“Access to data about investigations into an elected official depends on many factors, including whether the government entity considers the official to be an employee or whether there is a pending civil legal action into the official,” Director of the Data Practices Office at the Department of Administration Taya Moxley-Goldsmith said. “Each situation is fact-specific and there are different outcomes in different entities.”
Mower County does not consider Sandvik to be an employee, according to Harren.
Soderlind's report states that Capt. Clennon next reported his findings about Sandvik's condition to Austin Police Chief David McKichan. However, in a statement McKichan sent the Post Bulletin on March 20, 2023, he wrote that Clennon first brought Sandvik to Mower County Chief Deputy Mark May to express those concerns.
“At that point, the involvement of the Austin Police Department ended, as the matter was properly turned over to the appropriate authorities to address the concerns,” McKichan wrote.
McKichan, Clennon and several county officials, including Harren, Mower County Human Resources Director Kristina Kohn, and Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelson, talked over the next few days.
McKichan expressed a desire to put the incident in the county’s legal hands and mentioned a possible violation of the law by Sandvik that his department did not move forward with, all noted in emails obtained by the Post Bulletin in February 2023.
“This is not a matter I wish to discuss over email,” McKichan wrote in an email to county officials on Nov. 17, 2022 .
Soderlind's investigation began Nov. 18, 2022. On Nov. Nov. 22, 2022, interviews began with APD staff, dispatchers and others who witnessed Sandvik’s Nov. 16 actions. Sandvik was described by several witnesses as being in a happy mood and engaging in banter, and those present felt uncomfortable with the sheriff driving home, as it was late in the afternoon and people were getting ready to head home.
A video obtained by ABC 6 through a public records request shows Sandvik that day in his duty uniform and armed .
The county did not provide video of Sandvik that day to the Post Bulletin, despite a records request that included a request of any video footage of the incident.
"Based on his observations, Captain Clennon advised Sheriff Sandvik that he would be arrested if he tried to drive home," Soderlind wrote.
While County Administrator Trish Harren acknowledged at the time that the complaint involved accusations that Sandvik was drunk at work, it was not revealed until after the investigation had concluded that the county investigated Sandvik for possibly breaking the county’s policies regarding harassment and not whether the sheriff was intoxicated .
"The evidence does not support a finding that Sheriff Sandvik made comments that were sexual or discriminatory in nature. Instead, the evidence supports a finding that multiple employees in the dispatch office were uncomfortable based on the perception that Sheriff Sandvik was under the influence of alcohol, not because of any specific comment that he made or action that he undertook," Soderlind wrote in a Jan. 9, 2023, letter to Kohn, the HR director.
The county takes behavior that violates a policy or law seriously, Harren told the Post Bulletin in an email.
"In this case, the investigation could not substantiate that Sheriff Sandvik violated any policy or law,” she wrote.
In addition to the county's investigation into Sandvik, the letter from Soderlind states that a separate group met with Sandvik to discuss their concerns about his alcohol use.
"As a result of that intervention, Sheriff Sandvik acknowledged his misuse of alcohol, including while he was performing duties as sheriff, and that Sheriff Sandvik agreed to participate in a chemical use assessment and follow all recommendations therefrom," Soderlind wrote.
No investigation into Sandvik's drinking
McKichan’s department does not have oversight over “internal workplace issues,” he wrote in a March 20, 2023, statement to the Post Bulletin .
However, state law prohibits carrying a firearm while intoxicated, and at least 10 people have been prosecuted for the crime in Mower County between 2018 and 2022.
McKichan directed the Post Bulletin to talk with Mower County officials multiple times over the last few months and left unanswered questions regarding his department’s lack of follow-through for a criminal investigation.
No one at the police department conducted any sort of investigative action regarding the incident, according to Austin City Attorney Craig Byram wrote to the Post Bulletin.
“No incident report was initiated, no file opened, no data collected by the Austin Police Department, and no charges were anticipated at that time nor since,” he wrote.
This type of response leads to inadequate internal affairs oversight, according to David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and Hamline University.
“It sanctions police to do all kinds of bad stuff because all a police department has to say now is, ‘Well, we’re not keeping any records, we’re not doing any investigations,’ and therefore, it potentially lets police do whatever they want because they aren’t going to face any employment sanctions. That’s just sloppy policing, ” Schultz said.
Austin City Council Member Jason Baskin told the Post Bulletin that the community values the work of the police department and that he’s a strong supporter.
“Police deal with all kinds of complex situations and things are rarely, if ever, totally black and white,” Baskin wrote in an email. “Because APD leadership has consistently built a reputation over many years for integrity and professionalism, I trust their judgment that they made the right decision based on the totality of circumstances.”
McKichan and Clennon are “leaders of the highest personal and professional integrity,” Baskin wrote.
“At the very least, there’s an ethics issue here regarding what appears to be cutting slack for a fellow law enforcement officer,” Schultz said.
While the public only gained knowledge of the allegations and the ensuing investigation after the Post Bulletin ran a story, County Attorney Nelson said that there hasn’t been an attempt to cover up the incident, citing the police department’s intervention that day and the fact that the department notified the county.
“We didn’t immediately spring to the rooftops that this happened because we had a pending investigation,” she said. “You don’t talk about things when there’s a pending investigation.”
Schultz questions whether APD violated any of its own policies by not recommending charges against Sandvik for carrying a gun while intoxicated.
“My guess is that it’s an abuse of authority, and not holding (Sandvik) to the same standard that everybody else would have to be held to,” Schultz said.
A big gray area
However, Nelson does not see it that way.
“There is no handbook for the police department on what to do in a situation like this,” Nelson said, adding that a cop may expect to find someone under the influence on the road but not as an office co-worker. “I think that’s something that would be tough for a lot of people to do, but I don’t see any ill intent from the Austin Police Department at all. Is the whole situation frustrating regarding what data is out there and what’s happening? Yeah, but the person who should be answering these questions is the sheriff.”
Even if APD had recommended charges, her office would have needed a breath test showing Sandvik’s intoxication level to pursue a prosecution, Nelson said, adding that it’s a “strange part of the law that not a lot of officers know about.”
“(APD) did not refer to our office for charging and the test was not done,” Nelson said. “Again, do I wish that may been done differently? Absolutely. Do I think that there was an ill intent behind it? Again, I really don’t.”
County officials have also repeatedly said they do not have the power to punish Sandvik because he is an elected official.
However, the Mower County Sheriff’s Office policy handbook calls for any allegations of misconduct that are leveled against the sheriff to be investigated by the Mower County Administrator and for that investigation to follow certain Minnesota statutes that would require Sandvik to report the misconduct to the Minnesota Police Officer Standards and Training Board.
“We have very limited authority,” Mike Monsrud, standards coordinator for the Minnesota POST Board, said.
Being intoxicated at work violates the Mower County Sheriff’s Office Peace Officer Standards of Conduct Policy.
“If they didn’t investigate (Sandvik) for that particular state mandated policy, they’re not required to report it to us,” Monsrud said.
The POST Board has no oversight regarding the incident, unless someone files a complaint with the board , according to Monsrud.
“This is a loophole that you can drive a Mack truck through,” Schultz said. “It gives police departments all types of incentives not to, and pardon the pun here, police its own police.”
Even if the POST Board had the authority to start an investigation, it would only have control over Sandvik’s license as a peace officer and not whether he could remain sheriff, Monsrud said.
Threatened legal action
Sandvik has remained mostly silent regarding the investigation , at first only stating he was taking a leave of office.
“As the elected sheriff, I serve the citizens of Mower County. I take this responsibility seriously. In order to continue serving the residents with the expectations I put on myself, I need to step away to handle a variety of medical issues. Please understand, these types of medical decisions are personal," Sandvik wrote in Nov. 30, 2022, Facebook post .
He denied being intoxicated that day in a phone call to the Post Bulletin shortly after the investigation into his conduct began. He described the situation as a personal medical issue and declined to comment further. He has not responded to further attempts to communicate.
However, Sandvik has returned to work as sheriff, attending several events such as the 2023 Polar Plunge in Rochester .
In a letter dated Jan. 21, 2023, Richard Hodsdon, an attorney representing Sandvik, claims that the county, specifically Harren, released information about Sandvik that violated Minnesota statutes. He has called for Harren to stop talking about Sandvik's health concerns related to him drinking at work and that by doing so, she has violated the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
“While I believe the sheriff is not an employee and is not covered by data practices or HIPPA, I certainly did not intend to say or share anything I knew or was told by the sheriff that I thought he would not want the public he serves to know," Harren wrote. “But clearly, that is not his perspective. Intention and outcome are not aligned in this case.”
Harren did note that Sandvik received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and was given several treatment recommendations.
"He focused very intently on the treatment protocols and has made remarkable steps toward a return to health," Harren told the Post Bulletin in January.
In February 2023, Hodsdon told the Post Bulletin a decision hasn't been made yet regarding any legal action and declined to comment further about any legal actions.
“I certainly never intended in any way to violate Sheriff Sandvik’s privacy,” Harren wrote in a February email to the Post Bulletin. “I am deeply saddened that is his perspective.”