Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Thursday

January 17, 2013

UPDATE: Leelanau deputies receive $625K to settle

SUTTONS BAY — A federal lawsuit that targeted Leelanau County's then-sheriff and chewed through hundreds of hours, tens of thousands of dollars and plenty of newspaper space during its nearly four-year run ended with a $625,000 settlement.

Leelanau County sheriff's deputies Jim Kiessel, Michael Bankey and Duane Wright and former deputy Michael Lamb won a settlement to a suit they filed in early 2009 against former Sheriff Mike Oltersdorf and former Undersheriff Scott Wooters. The county board approved the settlement in October and financial details became public this week.

None of the deputies responded to a request for comment made through their attorney, Mike Dettmer, of Traverse City.

The county's insurance company paid the settlement, County Administrator Chet Janik said. Insurance premiums are expected to rise, he said. The settlement amount also covers attorney costs, Dettmer said.

Janik said the county is glad to put the lawsuit in the past.

"I think I speak for everyone involved in this that it's a relief to have it settled," he said. "This is a new year, there's a new sheriff on board, we have a new county board. So it's a fresh start for everyone."

Certain non-financial terms also were agreed upon in the settlement, authorities said previously. Those terms will remain confidential.

The suit stems from allegations that Oltersdorf and Wooters illegally listened to conversations on what employees believed to be private lines at the sheriff's department on several occasions dating to 2006. Sheriff's administrators then retaliated against employees who publicly criticized the practice, the suit alleged.

Oltersdorf said he was against settling, but the county's attorneys thought a trial might be financially risky.

"My preference would have been to go to trial and allow the truth to come out," Oltersdorf said. "All of the attorneys thought differently."

He also said he's disappointed the suit occurred in the first place.

"Most lawsuits are a mechanism for plaintiffs to obtain money. If the conflict was about an issue, those can be settled behind closed doors when people desire to talk out their differences," he said. "Unfortunately for Leelanau County residents, that option was never requested in this case."

Oltersdorf said allegations that he and Wooters eavesdropped were "totally inaccurate." Conversations were continuously recorded with recording equipment installed by the county in the sheriff's department building, he said.

He and Wooters behaved in an "appropriate and proper" manner, he said.

Wooters couldn't be reached for comment.

Melinda Lautner, the only commissioner to vote against settling the suit, is glad county residents now know the settlement amount.

"I'm glad it all finally came out publicly," she said.

Oltersdorf and Wooters left office at the end of 2012 and were replaced by Mike Borkovich and Steve Morgan, respectively.

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