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Tension builds between Wabasha County Board, attorney

With one lawsuit pending, another appears likely

By John Weiss

weiss@postbulletin.com

WABASHA -- The Wabasha County Board could be sued, again, by the county attorney.

On Tuesday, it refused to cover about $11,000 in fees that county attorney James Nordstrom and his assistant, Karrie Kelly, say they incurred to hire attorneys to defend themselves against complaints lodged by some members of the board.

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Two months ago, Nordstrom sued the board because it didn't give Kelly large enough raises the past several years. That suit is pending.

The most recent disagreement between Nordstrom and the board came because of complaints three members of the present board, Gene McNallan, David Windhorst and David Harms, and former member Merl Norman, brought against Nordstrom. In it, they alleged he misled the county board concerning the hiring of an attorney from another county to investigate a complaint of falsified time sheets by a former county deputy.

The Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility decided no discipline was warranted against Nordstrom, though it said he gave an inaccurate statement to the board. Another similar complaint against Kelly was also dismissed, Nordstrom said.

He asked for the payment two weeks ago but was told the board had to hire another attorney to see if the payments were valid. On Monday, the board received a letter saying the county didn't have to pay.

But in a terse, tense confrontation with the board Tuesday, Nordstrom challenged members on who filed the complaints and why.

"No one ever talked to me about it before they filed," he said.

He then asked McNallan who drafted the complaint.

"I'm not going to answer any questions because we don't have an attorney (present)," McNallan said. He also wondered who Nordstrom was representing -- himself or the county.

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Nordstrom said he was representing himself.

"I'm not going to answer because you can't represent both sides," McNallan said. He added that he didn't file a complaint against Kelly; he said he thought the lawyers board filed that one.

Windhorst said he was told not to comment without counsel present. But he said the matter was never on the board agenda before it was filed and was never discussed by the full board.

Harms also refused to comment without counsel.

Nordstorm referred to other times when the county paid attorney fees for other county employees. "Someone explain to me that difference," he said. "There is a long history here that would justify the payment."

Peter Riester, a board member who didn't sign the complaint, moved to have the county pay the bills. His motion failed for lack of a second.

Nordstrom quickly left the board room.

Windhorst, the board chair, indicated he expects there could be another lawsuit. "My opinion is Mr. Nordstrom is not going to let this die," he said. He added he hopes something can be worked out. "I've been hoping for this for six months," he said.

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Nordstrom could not be reached for comment regarding the possibility of another lawsuit.

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