LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts took swift action Friday when he fired the head of the Nebraska State Patrol for possibly interfering in internal investigations, an unprecedented move that could leave a federal investigation lingering over the agency.
The governor terminated Col. Brad Rice after a preliminary personnel review found “interferences in internal investigations and violations of internal policy at the highest levels of the Nebraska State Patrol.” Ricketts appointed Rice in 2015, and just last week expressed confidence in his leadership.
“The colonel did not live up to my expectations,” a somber Ricketts said Friday. “We have to be beyond reproach, and that’s why I relieved him of his duties.”
The governor said the information collected in an ongoing review by the state personnel director has been provided to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Six other patrol staff, including Rice’s second in command, have been placed on paid administrative leave until the review is completed.
“We will not tolerate that breach of integrity in the Nebraska State Patrol or any of my organizations,” Ricketts said during a press conference at his State Capitol office.
The firing of Rice was welcomed by many rank-and-file troopers who recently voiced deep dissatisfaction with Rice’s leadership in a culture survey conducted by the State Troopers Association of Nebraska, the troopers union. The $85 million a year agency employs 437 sworn officers.
“I’m very optimistic that it’s a definite move forward,” said Sgt. Brian Petersen, president of the union. “I also believe it will help ensure the public trust in the patrol is intact.”
An FBI spokesman said Friday he could neither confirm nor deny whether an investigation of the patrol will occur. The bureau’s investigations of other law enforcement agencies typically focus on allegations of civil rights violations or official corruption.
The personnel review has not uncovered concerns about how the patrol has handled external criminal investigations, just those involving internal investigation of actions by troopers, Ricketts said.
The lack of information about possible violations prompted one state senator to call for an immediate legislative oversight hearing on the matter. Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said he supported the governor’s firing of Rice but said the public deserves to know what led to it.
“This should have never happened in the first place,” Morfeld said. “What systems do we need to put in place to make sure it never happens again?”
The governor declined to discuss details of possible meddling by patrol administrators, but he did mention “use of force” investigations, including one recently described in a World-Herald report about a driver who died in a high-speed pursuit. The story raised questions about whether reports on the cause of the crash had been changed to shift the onus from the patrol to the intoxicated driver.
In response, Ricketts last week ordered a review of “policies, procedures and leadership” at the patrol. Chief Personnel Officer Jason Jackson said he launched the review this week by looking at files from internal use-of-force investigations and interviewing both current and former employees from all layers of the agency.
After meeting with the personnel director Thursday, the governor made the decision to fire Rice.
Ricketts met with the colonel Friday morning to deliver the news and said Rice behaved professionally. Rice, 58, who was paid $90,000 to lead the patrol, was not provided a severance package. By Friday afternoon, his photo had been deleted from the patrol’s website.
When reached by phone Friday, Rice said nothing before hanging up.
The governor said Lt. Col. Thomas Schwarten and five others have been put on paid administrative leave. Jackson said it would be premature to identify the other employees because their status affords them due process protections.
Two of the other officers placed on administrative leave are Maj. Mike Gaudreault and Capt. Jamey Balthazor, according to sources with knowledge of the patrol who spoke on the condition they not be named. Gaudreault works in the Lincoln headquarters, where he commands the field services division of patrol troopers, carrier troopers, police service dog handlers and the aviation support pilots. Balthazor commands the 11-county troop area E, which is based in Scottsbluff.
Attempts Friday to reach Schwarten and Gaudreault were unsuccessful. A person reached at a number listed for Balthazor hung up on a reporter.
Maj. Russ Stanczyk has been named interim superintendent of the agency.
The governor’s decision to act quickly on the early results of his review will help boost sagging morale at the agency, said Petersen, the union president. He pointed to a recent internal survey showing that just 19 percent of respondents thought the patrol’s administration works in the best interests of front-line state troopers.
Under Rice there also was a pervasive fear of retaliation against those who questioned decisions made at the top, Petersen said. Many also disagreed with the administration’s heavy emphasis on enforcing seat belt violations and writing tickets, instead of doing the comprehensive police work that many troopers believe makes a more lasting difference for public safety.
Petersen also said he supported the governor’s decision to turn over information to federal investigators.
Gary Young, the attorney who represents the union, said the “culture of the agency has been sick for some time.”
“The highest ranks of leadership in the patrol have created this culture, not just Rice,” Young said, adding that union members stand ready and eager to give their input for improving the agency.
Tom Nesbitt, a retired member of the patrol who served as superintendent from 1999 to 2005, said he was deeply saddened by Friday’s events. He and other patrol veterans said they had never heard of a prior colonel being relieved of his duty under a cloud of potential criminal wrongdoing.
“The troopers are so dedicated to the organization,” Nesbitt said. “The troopers will continue to carry out their mission. The public needs to have the confidence to know the organization will survive this and get back on track.”
One of the issues that apparently contributed to Rice’s downfall involved a 2016 high-speed pursuit near Gordon in northwest Nebraska. Immediately after the crash the trooper involved said repeatedly that he had used a permitted tactical maneuver to bump the fleeing vehicle with the intent of causing it to a spin-out safely.
But the story changed during the subsequent internal investigation, and some within the patrol suspected that was to avoid scrutiny, embarrassment and possible liability.
Rice, who reinstated the trooper to regular duty a few days after the incident, told The World-Herald that the trooper’s actions were justified. A Sheridan County grand jury ruled that the intoxicated driver, not State Trooper Tim Flick, caused the fatal accident, despite conflicting stories about the cause presented by patrol investigators and leaders.
Rice denied that there was any pressure on the internal investigator to declare the crash an accident rather than a death precipitated by one of his troopers.
The now-retired head of the patrol’s internal affairs unit, Lt. Dennis Leonard, said that he felt pressure was exerted by higher-ups to create a false narrative and wrote in an email that he had lost faith in the patrol’s ability to investigate its own personnel.
Leonard said Friday he was interviewed this week by Jackson, the personnel director, and came away convinced that Jackson would do a comprehensive and objective review.
“As a former employee of the State Patrol who loves it like family, I am pleased to see there was a quick and thorough response to the concerns that were raised,” he said. “Even though it had to come from outside.”
The driver who died after his vehicle rolled in the high-speed chase in Sheridan County was Antoine LaDeaux. His mother, Cleo LaDeaux of Gordon, said she was pleased to learn the governor removed Rice from his position.
“It will not bring my son back, but I think justice should be done for him,” she said.
Lawmakers scrutinized Ricketts’ 2015 nomination of Rice when his appointment was taken up by the Nebraska Legislature.
A debate lasting more than two hours focused on Rice’s views on women, among other concerns.
Rice, who was a patrol captain in Norfolk, supervised a female trooper who in 2007 won a federal gender discrimination lawsuit against the patrol. Rice served on job interview panels that denied her promotions.
Much of the concern raised by lawmakers centered on an allegation that Rice had once said women don’t belong in law enforcement, a comment that surfaced during the federal gender-bias trial.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a surprise,” Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha said Friday. “Culture starts at the top, and that was one of the concerns that we had. It seemed when he ran the Norfolk office there was a problem with the culture there.”
Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete is chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight responsibility of the State Patrol. She agreed that an oversight committee hearing will likely be necessary, but she first wants to give federal investigators time to do their work.
She said the governor did the right thing by turning over the matter to outside authorities.
“If there is a question of significant wrongdoing, I don’t think the State Patrol can investigate itself,” she said. “This is the appropriate direction to go.”
World-Herald staff writer Emerson Clarridge contributed to this report.
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