- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2016

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - The Iowa State Patrol has moved to terminate the employment of a ranking officer who had been one of its rising stars, invoking a seldom-used disciplinary process for supervisors, The Associated Press has learned.

Sgt. Michael Haugen was informed May 3 that the patrol is firing him “due to misconduct,” according to a document obtained under the open records law. A related criminal investigation is underway.

The patrol’s parent agency, the Iowa Department of Public Safety, has so far kept the details under wraps. Haugen has the right to appeal his termination and would continue to be paid his $79,000-annual salary until the action becomes final.

Haugen, 31, had been a trooper for a decade at the patrol’s Mason City post, which serves eight counties in northern Iowa. Last year he was promoted to sergeant, a position that only a few dozen patrol officers in the state hold.

It is the first time in nearly three years that the department has launched formal termination or demotion proceedings against a supervisor through the Employment Appeal Board, as required by state law. This time, the department has taken steps to shield details of his alleged actions from public scrutiny, at least temporarily.

Departing from past practice, the department didn’t give the board Haugen’s termination notice, which would make it a public record and spell out why his firing was being sought.

Instead, Commissioner Roxann Ryan’s executive officer, Jeff Ritzman, filed an undated letter saying Haugen had been given notice of his pending termination for misconduct but providing no details.

The letter, obtained by AP, is the only document that must be filed as long as Haugen doesn’t appeal, a board spokesman said. The board would ultimately decide whether his firing is justified if Haugen does appeal, following a hearing and an initial ruling from an administrative law judge.

The department hasn’t responded to a public information request filed last week. Spokesman Alex Murphy didn’t return multiple messages seeking comment. The patrol’s public information officer, Sgt. Nathan Ludwig, said Haugen was terminated but that he had no other information, saying he was too busy “trying to deal with the good news.”

Law enforcement officials say northern Iowa is buzzing with talk about Haugen’s dismissal, but that the patrol hasn’t shared any details.

“We’re all kind of curious about it,” said Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Kevin Pals. “It’s disappointing. He was a good guy.”

Mike Krapfl, a special agent with the Division of Criminal Investigation, declined comment on the criminal investigation, referring questions to Murphy.

Cerro Gordo County Attorney Carlyle Dalen said he is awaiting reports from investigators detailing the facts of the case. Given his prior work with Haugen on numerous cases, he said he might have to step away from any decision on whether to bring charges. If he does, the case would be referred to the attorney general’s office.

“I’m sure I’m going to know a lot more about it soon,” Dalen said.

Haugen, a Forest City resident, had a wide array of skills and duties, including negotiating with suspects during standoffs, maintaining evidence and investigating everything from car accidents to human trafficking. His LinkedIn page now lists him as an employee of a family-owned contracting business. He didn’t return a message left there.

The last time the department tried to fire a sergeant in 2013, it didn’t go well. Kevin Knebel, who was also based in Mason City, collected $118,000 in salary for not working during a 17-month appeal process before the department withdrew his firing and reinstated him to another job.

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