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Clashes with law in supervisor's past

Ben Plunkett says he brings a different perspective to the Pierce County Board and its law enforcement and human services committees.

It's hard to argue with that.

Plunkett has been found guilty of possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, drunk driving and having sexual relations with an underage girl. Although he pleaded out a meth charge, he admits he was using the drug. A judge slapped him with a 30-day jail term for contempt of court. He was arrested for drunk driving in Pierce County the night before he appeared in Burnett County court to confirm a plea bargain on the drug charges.

Internet court records show several driving citations in Wisconsin and Plunkett said he also has had "a slew" of Minnesota traffic citations, including a speeding fine that isn't paid. He has been through drug treatment programs three times, and he is on an installment plan to pay off delinquent Minnesota taxes.

When no other candidate emerged for the Pierce County Board's District 4 seat, Plunkett--who bought a house in River Falls six years ago--began a write-in campaign last spring. He won by getting 10 of the 14 votes cast.

At the next county board meeting, his fellow supervisors elected him to both the law enforcement and human services committees. He was also appointed to the public health board, solid waste management committee and industrial development committee.

"I definitely think that I have experience and insight to bring to those committees and possibly ways of thinking that will allow for different, more efficient ways of dealing with problems that are concerns to many Pierce County residents," said Plunkett during an interview last week.

According to his account, his addiction problems and trouble with the law began earlier.

Plunkett, who is originally from St. Paul, said he went through inpatient treatment for addictions twice in his younger years. At 17, he was sentenced in juvenile court for having sex with a 15-year-old girl he met during his first treatment program.

Although he says the sex was consensual, the girl was too young to legally give consent and he was placed on probation for about a year.

Plunkett said his parents--his father is a former Dakota County (Minn.) coroner and his mother writes operating systems for computers--were responsible for sending him to treatment the first two times.

"They thought it would be a good idea," said Plunkett. While his problems didn't end there, Plunkett said some good did come of the programs.

"After each of them, I stayed sober for a period of a couple of years, and I learned a lot from them."

But the major Wisconsin charge, a felony charge of possession of methamphetamine, stems from an incident five years ago in Burnett County shortly after Plunkett turned 28.

"I brought a number of illegal substances with me, I was caught with them and convicted of having them," said Plunkett simply.

He said he had gone to Burnett County in June 2001 to help clean up storm damage. According to deputies' reports, they found Plunkett asleep in a pickup that belonged to his father. They believed Plunkett "was under the influence of something" during questioning, and they found marijuana cigarettes, methamphetamine and a small bag of barbiturates.

Plunkett said he did indeed have marijuana, meth and "some kind of pills" in the truck.

According to police and court records, he was arrested in the early morning hours of June 21, 2001, taken to jail and held until a bail hearing on June 25.

When he didn't show up for a July 24 hearing, a bench warrant was issued. He was arraigned three days later, and the signature bond was increased to a real estate bond.

A January jury trial was cancelled abruptly, and the judge found Plunkett in contempt and sent him to jail for a month.

Plunkett said he had tried repeatedly and without success to contact his court-appointed attorney, fired the man shortly before court and couldn't find another lawyer in time.

"He was simply an incompetent attorney," said Plunkett of his old lawyer. Nevertheless, Plunkett spent the next 30 days in the Burnett County Jail.

He said he used the time to clean up and organize the jail's library.

"That 30-day time period was something that ultimately helped me clean up," said Plunkett. "But it wasn't an experience I would wish upon anyone."

His new attorney negotiated a plea bargain that avoided a felony conviction.

The morning before Plunkett was to appear for his plea hearing in Burnett County, he was arrested for drunk driving in Pierce County.

"That was really, really not a good idea," said Plunkett in retrospect.

Still, the Burnett County case was put to rest that day. The meth possession charge, which was a felony, was dismissed and Plunkett was found guilty on three misdemeanor charges: possession of marijuana, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.

He was sentenced to jail for seven days, put on probation for 18 months and fined $705.

But Plunkett said it was the Pierce County drunk driving charge that is responsible for keeping him sober. He was arrested April 2, 2002, and found guilty 20 days later.

As a result of that charge, he was fined $785, his driver's license was revoked for seven months and he was ordered to undergo alcohol and drug abuse assessment, and subsequently entered an outpatient program in Hudson.

"I'm much better off now that I'm not using the stuff," he said, admitting his addictions took their toll physically, mentally and financially.

Plunkett, who worked for seven years as a deck hand on tow boats on the Mississippi River system, said he has no job now. He was a full-time student at UW-River Falls spring semester and plans to attend full-time fall semester.

Apart from the Burnett case and the drunk driving charges, Wisconsin circuit court records show Plunkett has gotten 11 traffic tickets since August 2001.

The charges include speeding, inattentive driving, operating while suspended and driving without carrying his driver's license. The last Wisconsin ticket was written in September 2003.

Two of the charges were dismissed, but Plunkett was found guilty of one count of inattentive driving, four counts of speeding, two counts of operating while suspended and two counts of driving without carrying his driver's license.

Plunkett has completed probation on his Wisconsin convictions and paid his Wisconsin county court fines, which totaled just short of $3,300.

But, he said, "I'm still trying to dig myself out of the hole."

He is paying off delinquent Minnesota income taxes and hasn't yet paid a fine for a Minnesota speeding ticket he got earlier this summer.

In the meantime, Plunkett is a junior at UWRF working on a degree in biotechnology. He estimates it will be another two to three years before he graduates.

Now, he said, he is interested in getting an education and "doing the right things in the world."

Plunkett said he's convinced that, if he had been poor and black, he would have been convicted of felonies. Since he wasn't, though he's still paying for his misdeeds, he has moved on--and is not prohibited from serving in public office.

Plunkett said he has always been interested in social justice and "creating a world where people can be successful."

He said he feels he has an obligation to give back to others, "to make sure that our government does its job for the public and for people."

Examples of that would be helping provide social services to those who need them, he said.

"I think it's a citizen's duty to do for their community what they can."

Plunkett said he has no other political ambitions and will make no decisions about running for another term until later in this two-year term.

"I will do the best that I can in this time and decide toward the end of this time," he said.