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Photos in uniform become center of internal probe

Sheriff race, Steele County, Owatonna, policy, investigation
This post on “Darrin Helget for Sheriff” Facebook has become the center of an internal investigation by Steele County. Helget posted photographs of himself in uniform as well as another deputy with his K-9 partner, which appear to violate Sheriff’s Office policy. Human Resources Director Julie Johnson is leading an investigation into the matter.
Rick Bussler, Publisher

Photographs of deputies in uniform posted on a sheriff deputy’s social media have become the focus of an internal investigation by Steele County.

Human Resources Director Julie Johnson confirmed her department is in the “process of investigation and taking action regarding policy violation allegations” against veteran deputy Darrin Helget, who is running for election against his boss, Sheriff Lon Thiele.

However, when reached Monday morning, Helget had no knowledge of the investigation. Johnson responded late Monday when this edition went to press that she had not reached out to Helget yet regarding the allegations because she has been away from work since June 2 due to a family emergency. 

“I really cannot comment about this complaint being as I have never been informed of it,” Helget said. “Disclosing to the media or anyone else for that matter about an active investigation before I was even informed, let alone its completion, is a violation of statute and wreaks of political dirty pool. I will be demanding an investigation into this disclosure soon.”

Helget said someone is “clearly using their authority to affect the outcome of an election.”

Helget admitted he has had a profile photo in uniform on his Facebook since 2018.

Mindy Reedy, formerly of Owatonna who now lives in Wisconsin, filed a complaint with Johnson on May 27 as well as Steele County Auditor Laura Ihrke against Helget after she saw he had been posting photos of himself and another deputy with a K-9 in uniform on his Facebook, “Darrin Helget for Sheriff.”

Ihrke serves as the county’s chief election judge.

Reedy told the Times she sent Johnson screenshots of the photographs in question on Helget’s website.

The problem seems to be neither Helget or the K-9 officer had permission to post their photographs, which violates sheriff’s office policy.

According to Steele County Sheriff’s Office Policy Manual, which was obtained through a data request to Johnson, Policy 1020.6 states: “Unless specifically authorized by the sheriff, Steele County Sheriff’s Office employees may not wear any part of the uniform, be photographed wearing any part of the uniform, utilize a badge, patch or other official insignia of the office, or cause to be posted, published or displayed, the image of another employee, or identify him/herself as an employee of the Steele County Sheriff’s Office… to endorse, support or contradict any political campaign or initiative.”

A second policy also deals with unauthorized endorsements and advertisements. Policy 1023.4.1 states employees cannot represent the sheriff’s office in any way to endorse, support, oppose or contradict any political campaign unless specifically authorized by the sheriff.

County policy indicates there are various forms of discipline available to handle such situations.

Reedy said after she initiated her complaint, the K-9 photo was taken down from Helget’s Facebook, but Helget has remained in his brown uniform in other areas of the social media account.

“How can you have a sheriff that can’t follow basic rules and policy?” Reedy says. “It would have been simple for him (Helget) to ask for permission.”

While Reedy isn’t sure what the outcome of the investigation will be, she hopes that Helget will be more diligent in following the rules and pay more attention. “I want to make sure both candidates are following the rules that are made,” she said.

“I believe when you are in law enforcement things should be black and white and not a lot of gray area when enforcing.”

When Sheriff Thiele was asked about the complaint against Helget, he responded: “I believe in the integrity of the sheriff’s office and the importance of following and enforcing policies and procedures.”

Thiele confirmed Helget has never asked him for permission to post any photographs in uniform.

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