- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The wife of a former North Dakota county sheriff who was removed from office by the governor nearly 13 years ago in part because of illegal spending is now accused of financial wrongdoing herself.

Catherine Muehler, 72, is accused of financial misconduct while operating a state Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle office in Wahpeton. She is the wife of Harlan Muehler, who had served as Richland County’s sheriff for 14 years when then-Gov. John Hoeven removed him from office in August 2001.

Authorities allege that Catherine Muehler can’t account for about $100,000 owed to the state from a Motor Vehicle branch office she operated on a contract basis. The Wahpeton office was shut down last May following an audit, due to what Transportation Department officials said was a “breach of contract.” A new office opened in July in the Wahpeton-Breckenridge Area Chamber of Commerce.

Muehler is charged with misapplication of entrusted property, a felony that carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. She made her initial court appearance Feb. 4 and is due back March 4, at which time she could waive a preliminary hearing and enter a plea.

Her attorney, Michael McCartney, did not immediately respond to email and telephone requests for comment from The Associated Press on Wednesday. The Muehlers also have not responded to requests for comment left on their home phone Tuesday and Wednesday.

Hoeven, who is now a U.S. senator, removed Harlan Muehler from office for illegal spending and inappropriate behavior toward women - actions that had prompted a group of citizens to launch a petition drive for his removal.

Muehler was accused of keeping an illegal office fund - financed by property sales, insurance settlements and copying fees - to pay for Christmas parties, food, liquor, candy, cash gifts and at least one political ad. Muehler’s attorney at the time said the fund predated Muehler’s tenure as sheriff and that Muehler never used it for personal gain.

Muehler also was accused of using sexually graphic and vulgar language. He said at the time he never intended to offend anyone.

Muehler maintained that his removal was political rather than legal. He tried to regain his job in the following year’s election but did not advance past the June primary.

Longtime Richland County State’s Attorney Ron McBeth said he played no role in the investigation of the sheriff but wants to steer clear of Catherine Muehler’s case to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.

“Someone might say she got a sweet deal because I know them, or got a bad deal because I don’t like them,” he said. “Somebody’s always going to say something, so I just stayed out of it.”

Megan Kummer, the prosecutor handling the case, was out of the office Wednesday and unavailable for comment.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake


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