The Broadwater County Sheriff says she terminated her undersheriff because of “gross inefficiency in the performance of official duties” because he was misleading about his education. But the former undersheriff contends his firing was politically motivated, due to the fact that he is running against her in the November election.
“She didn’t have to terminate me. She could have chosen many options if she thought I was misleading,” Ben Knaff said Wednesday.
Sheriff Brenda Ludwig fired Knaff on Friday for providing false documents about his high school diploma, according to the termination later obtained by the Independent Record, after the newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Broadwater County sheriff’s and attorney’s offices.
“Your actions in providing false and misleading information and statements cannot be tolerated in my office. I must be able to rely on the absolute veracity of my officers,” Ludwig wrote.
She said she believes the residents of Broadwater County would agree with her decision.
“It had nothing to do with politics. It had to do with the job I was elected to do,” Ludwig said.
Knaff, who vehemently denied the allegations, filed a grievance and requested a hearing on the issue with the Broadwater County Commission.
“I have nothing to hide from anyone,” Knaff said.
Knaff said an investigation into his education showed that he was the victim of an online scam that made him believe he had a diploma. When he found out that was not accurate, he took a general educational development test the next day and passed, he said.
“I was not the creator of the documents. I was the one who got scammed,” Knaff said.
The Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council conducted an investigation after it received an anonymous tip saying Knaff did not have a GED or a diploma, a necessity to be certified. A POST investigator found that Knaff’s high school diploma, attained through an Internet company, was not valid and the company was from a “diploma mill,” according to Wayne Ternes, executive director of POST.
Knaff was placed on paid suspension from Aug. 21 when the investigation began until his termination on Friday.
According to Ternes, it is up to each agency to decide whether to suspend an officer while an investigation is being conducted or to discipline in any way upon the outcome of an investigation. The investigation into Knaff’s education was finalized on Aug. 31 when he showed investigators proof of passing the GED.
The POST Council reviews complaints against public safety officers and may revoke or suspend an officer’s certification. Ternes said all of Knaff’s paperwork is now in order and all he needs to do is reapply.
For 20 years Knaff believed he had a valid diploma from Conrad High School, and never thought more of it again until the issue arose during his unsuccessful bid for Broadwater County sheriff in 2006, when it began as a rumor that he didn’t have a diploma. He said he then called the school to obtain a copy of the diploma and was told there wasn’t one. Knaff said he had taken correspondence courses as part of his high schooling and was told he should contact the school from which he took those classes.
He said he then called several schools and received a response from Belford High School that he had taken the courses there, and he was sent a diploma after paying shipping and handling costs.
“I believed that Belford was the high school I had taken my correspondence classes with in 1986,” Knaff said. “I was glad to find the school, and I never questioned anything.”
In a letter to Knaff dated Sept. 16, Ludwig said she had called Belford High School two days prior and learned that the school had never offered correspondence courses and that the school was established in 1992, but would backdate diplomas if requested.
According to Knaff, he was informed by the state Office of Public Instruction that the online school was a scam on Aug. 23.
“These diplomas were received by you from Belford High School which is located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and presented to the Sheriff of Broadwater County and POST (graduation date Nov. 5, 2006) in 2006 and 2010 (graduation date May 31, 1986),” states the termination letter from Ludwig. “You provided false information to the Pondera County Sheriff’s Department in 1990 indicating you graduated from Conrad High School. You have not ever had a valid high school diploma or G.E.D. which are qualifications to be a Montana Deputy Sheriff until you received your G.E.D. from the Office of Public Instruction on Aug. 31, 2010.”
Knaff said when he listed in 1990 that he had graduated from Conrad High School, he was under the impression he had.
When asked why she chose to terminate Knaff after he received his GED, Ludwig responded, “the letter speaks for itself.”
Ludwig said she was asked by the Broadwater County attorney to only talk about the letter, which was released to the newspaper Wednesday as part of the FOIA request, so she could not discuss whether there were any prior performance issues with Knaff’s conduct.
According to Knaff, he has a spotless record with Broadwater County and has never received any reprimands.
Knaff’s name will remain on the ballot, and said he still intends to run for sheriff against Ludwig.
Reporter Angela Brandt: 447-4078 or firstname.lastname@example.org