WDAY: The News Leader

Published June 03, 2013, 10:06 AM

Halstad council advised to stay mum on mayor’s rape charges

HALSTAD, Minn. – The City Council here is staying mum on recent charges alleging the city’s mayor raped a female acquaintance in late May.

By: Erik Burgess, Forum News Service, Forum News Service

HALSTAD, Minn. – The City Council here is staying mum on recent charges alleging the city’s mayor raped a female acquaintance in late May.

Vice Mayor Shane Carlson said in a special council meeting Monday morning that legal counsel has advised them to not comment on the charges filed against Mayor Steve Sortland.

Sortland, 44, was charged on May 29 in Norman County District Court with first-degree criminal sexual conduct and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

“Unless the mayor voluntarily resigns, there is no action the council can take until the legal process is complete, and he either pleads guilty to the crime or is found guilty by a jury,” Carlson said, reading from a prepared statement.

The council did unanimously approve adding Carlson’s name to the city’s signature cards, which are used to pay the city’s bills and must be signed by two council members, usually Sortland and Treasurer Ron Gotteberg.

“I do think it is a good idea to have this meeting to get my signatures on the cards, and that it’s best the council say nothing at this time,” Carlson continued, still reading from a prepared statement. “So that’s about all we have to say for that.”

The charges filed against Sortland allege that on May 23, a woman told deputies she wanted to report being sexually assaulted by Sortland, but was afraid for the safety of her children.

The woman said she and Sortland had consensual sex at his home, but that he later forced her to have sex, court documents state.

On May 26, the victim reported that Sortland had called her after learning she had reported the incident to the sheriff’s office. She said Sortland told her that he didn’t know if he should kill her or take off so no one could find him, court records allege.

Sortland, who has no known criminal history, has denied the charges, telling investigators the sex was consensual, according to the complaint.

Sortland was arrested on Monday, May 27, and bail was set at $75,000.

A jail staffer the Northwest Regional Corrections Center in Crookston said Monday morning that Sortland posted bail on May 29. He was not present at the council meeting Monday.

A felony conviction would mean the removal of a mayor, according to the League of Minnesota Cities. But a mayor accused of a felony could serve in that post while the charges are pending.

Minnesota sentencing guidelines for a conviction on the more serious first-degree criminal sexual conduct charge, which alleges forceful or coercive penetration causing injury, calls for between 12 and 30 years in prison, depending on the criminal history of the offender.

Sentencing guidelines for the third-degree charge call for between four and 15 years.