But Daniel Thorstad said those rumors about his former office were false, and he accused county leaders of not caring about the welfare of his employees or veterans.
Thorstad resigned Wednesday, Sept. 4, after serving as the county’s veterans services officer for 4 1/2 years. The resignation came a day after he was asked to sign a letter of reprimand.
The reprimand letter claimed Thorstad did not show interest in investigating a list of 16 complaints regarding the performance of his office. That included veterans who said they were treated poorly or told to go elsewhere.
An additional veteran who was homeless was reportedly told by staff they couldn't see him for two to three months.
Thorstad said he attempted to find out more about complaints submitted to Cass County by Summer Kristianson, a Fargo-based department service officer for the North Dakota American Legion. He called some of the claims “embellished” and others “bogus."
“It wasn’t anything my staff or I did wrong,” he said. “It’s just a veteran wasn’t happy with the answer he got, he went to someone else and now it looks like we are turning veterans away.”
The county instructed Thorstad to complete a performance improvement plan and present a report on investigating the complaints — failing to do so would be “grounds for termination,” according to county documents.
The reprimand letter was “the final straw” in a series of events that led Thorstad to believe his “leadership and forthrightness do not mesh with the operating environment of Cass County,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
“It is abundantly clear to me that the management of Cass County values a pristine image over the welfare of its employees,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “It is also clear that Cass County management does not support our veterans.”
County Administrator Robert Wilson and several county commissioners disagreed. The county should look into all complaints and does everything to serve its customers properly, said Commissioner Vern Bennett, who holds the veterans services portfolio.
Veterans deserve to be treated with maximum dignity and respect, he said.
"We consider every employee a son or daughter of somebody, and we want to treat our employees in the same manner that parents would treat their sons and daughters," Bennett said.
Kristianson said she could not discuss the list of veterans complaints, citing policy on protecting privacy. She also declined to speak about interactions with the Cass County Veterans Services Office.
But her emails to county commissioners in recent weeks described a homeless veteran in “dire need of assistance” being turned away by the county.
“We have begun to see a disturbing trend with the Cass County (Veterans Services Office) however,” she wrote, claiming the county sent veterans to her office.
Her office doesn’t typically keep track of complaints about Cass County, but she compiled a list of complaints over the last three months after county officials wanted to discuss the homeless veteran situation, she said.
Thorstad said his office does not turn people away, but veterans may seek help elsewhere to get a quicker response. Veterans typically give his office good reviews, according to emails obtained by reporters.
He wrote in those emails his office performed more than 12,700 actions for nearly 4,200 clients in the last year, and the 16 complaints make up 0.38% of the total. He emphasized every client is important, but it’s hard to make everyone happy.
“We’re human, we make mistakes and we gladly own up to them," he said.
Wilson, who has been with the county as an administrator for more than two years, has not heard of complaints against the Cass County Veterans Services Office during his tenure. Clay County Veterans Services Officer Curt Cannon and Nick Jalbert, head of the regional service office for Veterans of Foreign Wars, also have not fielded complaints regarding the Cass County office.
Officials from the North Dakota Veterans Affairs Department were not available for comment.
Wilson said he could not discuss personnel matters, but the county will investigate the complaints internally.
“I have the absolute commitment from the interim director that he’s going to review those cases, every one of them,” Wilson said. “If we don’t get something right, then we do what we have to do to make it right.”
Senior Veterans Services Representative Les Ashe was appointed in the interim to take over for Thorstad.
Thorstad said his office went out of its way to assist veterans, so he gets frustrated when accusations are made against staff.
“You get punched enough in the face, yeah, you’re going to fight back, right?” he asked.