Leaker of nude photo identified; Cass County sheriff puts reserve deputy on leave

By April Baumgarten

“I believe that I was put on admin leave to make me shut up,” said the Cass County reserve deputy who sent a censored version of a lieutenant’s nude photo to news outlets. “I think it was an example of what happens when people talk out and speak the truth.”

FARGO — Amid a contentious campaign for Cass County sheriff, a reserve deputy has stepped forward to say he’s responsible for an anonymous email that shook up the race.

The email sent Oct. 3 alerted local news outlets to an internal investigation into a lieutenant who used a department-issued phone to send a nude photo.

The reserve deputy, Ben Longlet, told The Forum that he became the subject of an internal investigation himself after sending news outlets the anonymous email, which included a censored version of the lieutenant’s nude photo.

Longlet said the Cass County Sheriff’s Office investigated him for his role with Code4 Media, the entity listed in the anonymous email as its sender. Along with the photo, the email shared public records that detailed the investigation into how Lt. Tommy Ray sent a nude photo of himself to a male deputy, apparently by accident.

The reserve deputy said Sheriff Jesse Jahner put him on administrative leave starting Oct. 14. The decision came after internal investigators questioned Longlet about whether he was Code4. Longlet acknowledged sending the anonymous email, and said Code4 is a group of concerned citizens and law enforcement.

“I believe that I was put on admin leave to make me shut up,” Longlet told The Forum. “I think it was an example of what happens when people talk out and speak the truth.”

Jahner is running for reelection against Deputy Mathew King in the Nov. 8 general election. Jahner confirmed to The Forum that Longlet is on administrative leave.

As of Thursday, Oct. 20, Jahner’s office was still investigating whether Longlet violated policies of the sheriff’s office, said Capt. Joel Stading, who conducts internal investigations for the agency.

Along with the internal investigation into Code4, Jahner said there’s the potential for a criminal investigation since Ray’s nude photo was shared without his permission. The sheriff said he had concerns about Ray’s privacy and harassment against the lieutenant as a result of the photo being shared with news outlets.

“Tommy Ray has expressed those concerns to me,” Jahner said.

Longlet’s attorney, Chris Redmann, alleged that the sheriff’s office illegally identified Longlet as a whistleblower through the internal investigation. The attorney said the use of a department-issued phone made Ray’s photo a public record and that Longlet’s actions are protected under the First Amendment.

“Before the sheriff threatens charges against his rank and file to silence legally protected activity, he should have consulted with the state’s attorney,” Redmann said. “In fact, Sheriff Jahner has committed misdemeanor criminal coercion in his threat to criminally charge rank-and-file members of the department to refrain them from constitutionally protected activity.”

Ray told investigators the nude photo was meant for his wife, and the sheriff’s office determined Ray sent the photo to the deputy by accident in September 2021, according to internal investigative documents. The lieutenant also acknowledged using his department phone to send other nude photos to his wife, the documents said.

Ray received a written reprimand for improper use of a county phone since it was his first offense, the sheriff said.

Jahner said Longlet’s actions have disrupted the sheriff’s office and have negatively impacted morale.

“Several employees have questioned me as to why he has been allowed to stay at the organization to this point,” Jahner said of Longlet. “We cannot as an organization continue to have someone committing policy violations and not investigate the activity for fear of others who may follow suit or indicate in the future that policy investigations are not done in a timely consistent manner. And finally, we cannot delay these investigations solely on the fact that it is an election year.”

Longlet said he was not politically motivated in sending the anonymous email but wanted to do what was right for the county. Staying silent would have been a disservice, he said.

“Someone needed to speak up to start the change that needs to happen within this organization,” Longlet said.

The race for sheriff

The handling of the investigation into the lieutenant has drawn criticism, with some questioning whether the incident was covered up or whether Ray received a light punishment. The deputy who received the photo said he felt his concerns were not taken seriously by the sheriff’s office, according to documents obtained by The Forum through a public records request.

Jahner said he handled the investigation into Ray properly, adding that he felt he was transparent in sharing documents with news outlets when requested.

King and Longlet both told The Forum that King was not part of Code4. King acknowledged knowing Longlet for many years, but he didn’t know Longlet was part of Code4 until after Longlet was put on administrative leave.

“Is the county using taxpayer dollars for a political campaign right now to find out who is attacking Jesse?” King asked.

Longlet signed a petition that allowed King to run for office. However, the reserve deputy said he isn’t pushing for King to win the election. Longlet said he helped Jahner with his campaign in 2018.

Jahner denied using an internal investigation to silence Longlet. Jahner said sheriff’s office staff must follow policy, and it’s his job to make sure they do.

“As an organization, we need to move forward with this investigative process,” Jahner said. “The main goal of the Cass County Sheriff’s Office is to provide a high level of public safety and good customer service to our citizens without disruptions.”

‘Black eye’

Longlet claims the sheriff’s office violated state law by forcing him, through the internal investigation, to reveal that he sent the Code4 email. A North Dakota Attorney General’s Office guide to open records says “a public entity cannot ask why the records are requested, ask for identification or require a request be made in writing (or in person).”

The sheriff noted concerns about Longlet allegedly disobeying a directive. Jahner told staff in a March email to stop discussing Ray’s incident and the internal investigation in “group messages, emails or talk” out of respect for the privacy of those involved, including the deputy who received the nude photo.

Jahner’s email cited a policy that prohibits disparaging remarks or conduct that could “disrupt the efficiency of the office” or would discredit any employee.

Ray accepted disciplinary action and wants to move on, Jahner said. He shouldn’t have to keep hearing about it at the office.

“That’s why I sent the email to the agency … and the situation is done,” Jahner said. “The discipline has been handed out, and at this point, it’s done.”

Longlet told The Forum that Ray put a “black eye” on the department. He also said leadership needs to take responsibility for how the investigation was handled.

“I wasn’t the one that put this department in this position,” Longlet said.

Longlet has been a reserve deputy since December 2018. The volunteer position can conduct patrols, serve as security and make arrests under the supervision of deputies.

Code4 initially asked in emails to The Forum to remain anonymous. Longlet said he was ready to reveal his identity after Jahner put him on administrative leave.

“I released public record documents,” Longlet said. “Anyone could have done that. Anyone could have requested them. So I’m not quite sure why I’m currently being punished more than the person who sent a dick pic.”

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