Unemployment hearing sheds light on former deputy’s sudden departure

Lt. Eric Nation was subject of employment investigation at time of resignation

When long-time and highly decorated Jasper County Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Nation suddenly announced his resignation last May, many people were scratching their heads, wondering why.

Although officials of the sheriff’s department still won’t discuss specifics eight months later, public records obtained by the Daily News show that Nation was investigated by the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation for possible misuse of county property and “misconduct with female contacts and confidential informants.” No details about those allegations have been made public.

But DCI Assistant Director Chari Paulson has since told the Daily News that her agency completed its investigation into the criminal allegations against Nation. She said the Iowa Attorney General’s Office had reviewed the findings and decided not to file criminal charges.

Records also show that two months before his resignation, Nation, who was eastern regional commander of the Mid-Iowa Narcotics Enforcement drug task force, had been investigated by the Department of Human Services for allegations that proved to be unfounded.

At the time of the resignation in May, neither then-Sheriff Mike Balmer nor then-Chief Deputy John Halferty, who now is Jasper County Sheriff, would discuss the matter, claiming it was an internal personnel issue. Iowa law shields such information from public scrutiny, except when a public employee is fired for illegal activity.

And Jasper County Human Resources Director Dennis Simon would say only that Nation had been the subject of an “employment investigation.” Simon said Nation had been placed on paid administrative leave one week before he resigned. But like Balmer and Halferty, Simon declined further comment.

Nation later was denied unemployment benefits from Jasper County. When he filed an appeal June 27 with Iowa Workforce Development, a hearing before Administrative Law Judge James E. Timberland was convened July 25. Such hearings are a matter of public record.

As a result of a public records request by the Daily News, Iowa Workforce Development produced an audio recording of Nation’s hearing, which was held by telephone conference with Timberland, Nation, Simon, Halferty and Balmer. The recording shed light on the events and circumstances that led to Nation’s resignation.

The former lieutenant testified under oath that he had voluntarily left the sheriff’s office after he became the subject of a legal investigation by the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation into alleged misconduct while on duty. That investigation focused on possible misuse of county property and on “misconduct with female contacts and confidential informants.”

“We do not need to get into all the grim details of what you folks were looking into,” Administrative Judge Timberland said in the hearing. “But I do need to have an idea of what the allegations were, at that time, being investigated. What were they?”

Halferty told the judge that DCI was investigating “allegations of Eric’s misconduct in how he utilized county property … as it related to female contacts or informants, and activities that he may have been doing with them that were not legal or authorized.”

Nation then told Timberland he had resigned after being interviewed for nearly 90 minutes May 17 by DCI investigators at the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office. He said he consulted a lawyer before resigning eight days after the interview.

In an interview with the Daily News, DCI Assistant Director Paulson confirmed her agency’s involvement.

“We did conduct an investigation regarding some allegations of official misconduct regarding Lt. Nation,” Paulson said. “That investigation has been completed, and the case file has been referred to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office for their review. As a result of their review, there were no charges filed.”

Details about Nation’s acts with informants and possible misuse of Jasper County property still are not part of the public record. When asked about testimony at the hearing, Balmer and Halferty declined further comment.

Also during the unemployment hearing, Nation, Halferty and Balmer stated under oath that the former lieutenant had been the subject of a Department of Human Services investigation about two months before he resigned. The allegations were eventually deemed unfounded, but Halferty testified in the hearing he had approached Nation and admitted to being the mandatory reporter.

“On completion of that DHS investigation, Eric felt that he knew who the mandatory reporter was and was very understandably upset about it,” Halferty said in his testimony. “And in order to try to help with the whole situation, I had a meeting with him, and I informed him that I was actually the mandatory reporter. We don’t normally tell the alleged person who the mandatory reporter was, but I felt that it was best for me to reveal to him that I was the one who received information and that I was the reporter. So we discussed that at length.”

During the hearing, testimony revealed that Nation had been placed on a two-week disciplinary suspension during the time between the DHS investigation and the DCI investigation. Halferty testified the suspension was for misuse of county property, and that during the suspension, Nation was not allowed to have contact with confidential informants.

Nation told Timberland the suspension was at first slated to be unpaid, but Balmer allowed him to use earned vacation during the suspension so his medical insurance would stay intact for his family. Nation, Halferty and Balmer all testified that after his suspension, Nation would be transferred out of narcotics enforcement and to the patrol division at the earliest date.

That was mentioned in the department’s final written disciplinary statement when Nation was suspended. Balmer said the transfer came at Nation’s request and was included in the disciplinary document only as a show a good faith by the department to acknowledge his desire to leave narcotics.

Nation claimed the sheriff’s office meant the transfer to be punitive but was never again mentioned after his suspension.

“There was a two-week hard suspension, and also I think the last part or sentence said something to the effect that we would implement, as soon as practical, a transfer back to a patrol lieutenant position,” Balmer testified. “That was because of Lt. Nation’s expression that he was ready to come out of the drug task force and from Chief Deputy Halferty’s recommendation that it might be a good thing to do at some point. Prior to his resignation, it had not been practical, or something we had not been able to facilitate at that time. So it hadn’t occurred yet.”

Before he resigned, the former lieutenant was third-in-command of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Department, answering only to Balmer and Halftery. He was responsible for the department’s narcotics enforcement. At the time of the alleged misconduct, Halferty had been Nation’s direct supervisor since 2000.

Nation had been hired as a Jasper County deputy in May 1997.

In his role in narcotics enforcement, he also was commander for the MINE Task Force’s eastern region, leading drug enforcement for Jasper and Poweshiek counties, and answered to MINE Task Force Commander and Polk County Sheriff’s Capt. Kevin Schneide. Nation continued to serve on the MINE Task Force until May 16, which was the last day he performed law enforcement-related tasks at the sheriff’s office.

In asserting that he was entitled to unemployment compensation, Nation said he believed Balmer and Halferty had violated their own internal policies by lying to him about the nature of the May 17 DCI interview. He said that created a hostile work environment.

“Those circumstances of that day, being misguided, misled, lied to by Chief Deputy Halferty on what I was coming in there for … I was never told that I was coming in [to be] the internal investigation,” Nation said in the hearing. “I was told to come in and assist with an internal.

“And then, after being ordered into an interview room and then being interviewed by the DCI, after my gun and my cell phone taken from me, I believe was extreme and crossed the line, as far as an administrative and internal issue compared to a criminal issue. I obviously felt like I was not free to leave after being ordered into that interview room by the sheriff. … I felt like it was hostile at that point on whether or not I could return to that employer at that point.”

Halferty testified that his office had begun an internal investigation into Nation’s alleged misconduct at the same time his department was contacted by the DCI to ask for access to Nation. He said he was contacted by two DCI agents who advised they needed to speak with Nation, asking that a “cold contact” be initiated in the interview room at the sheriff’s office.

“[DCI agents] asked me to call [Nation] and have him come in, and their intent was to conduct a criminal investigation,” Halferty testified. “They advised me that when they were done with their portion of Mr. Nation, that I would then be able to determine whether we needed to do an internal investigation.”

Halferty said he used a text message to call Nation to the office, supposedly to assist with the internal investigation of an unidentified employee, purposely not telling Nation that he was the employee in question. Halferty noted that the DCI’s insistence on a “cold contact,” in which Nation would not be aware of the interview’s true aim until after he arrived, required the subterfuge.

“Investigations, when it is a non-criminal case, we are required to notify [employees] ahead of time and in writing, unless there is a criminal investigation,” Halferty testified. “If there is a criminal investigation, I am not required to notify him in detail ahead of time.”

Nation was relieved of his department-issued weapon, county-owned cell phone and badge after being led to the interview room.

On July 31, Timberland upheld the Iowa Workforce Development representative’s denial of Nation’s benefits. He ruled the former narcotics officer’s concerns of being misled and coerced into the cold DCI interview, and his feelings of being “left in limbo” after a requested transfer, were necessary functions of a police agency.

“The employer was under no obligation to shield Mr. Nation from, or assist Mr. Nation with, either a criminal investigation into alleged misconduct, or a DHS investigation concerning one of its officers,” Timberland wrote in his final opinion. “On the contrary, the employer had an interest and obligation in cooperating with any criminal investigation, administrative investigation or DHS

“The mild subterfuge the employer used to get Mr. Nation to the sheriff’s office for the DCI interview appears to have been nothing more than standard law enforcement tactics, the likes of which Mr. Nation probably employed many times during his law enforcement career. Such as, there would be little reason for Mr. Nation to be taken aback when he became the focus of the investigation and these were used on him. The same logic applies to the employer’s decision not to disclose its knowledge concerning the DHS investigation prior to the DHS interview.

“The employer was under no obligation to transfer Mr. Nation to another area of operations within a particular timeframe, and the lack of transfer did not give rise to intolerable or detrimental working conditions or a change in the contract or hire.”

© Newton Daily News, 2013