Former Crosby Mayor James Hunter has now been vindicated on all criminal charges filed against him-but the saga may not be over yet.
In a 2-year-old legal battle Hunter's attorney described as emotionally and financially taxing for his client, the last two pending criminal charges were dismissed Friday, April 19, in Crow Wing County District Court in Brainerd. But Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan said Monday he is considering re-charging Hunter with a misdemeanor for falsely reporting a crime.
"I may have inappropriately dismissed this one," Ryan wrote in an email.
Hunter initially was charged in March 2017 with four felonies of second-degree assault, theft by swindle, receiving stolen property and unlawful gambling, and a gross misdemeanor for selling vehicle financing without a license. He then was charged in August 2017 for falsely reporting a crime in a separate case.
Friday's dismissals join prior acquittals through jury trials, for now ending the cases Attorney Ed Shaw said were politically motivated by false accusations against his client.
Hunter was accused of swindling $90,000 from a man who bought one of Hunter's businesses, domestic assault involving the son of the man who accused him of swindle and engaging in the business of a sales finance company in the state without a license.
Hunter's charges were tried separately, with each charge being addressed individually, resulting in the following outcomes:
• Theft by swindle: Acquitted June 27, 2018, by a Crow Wing County jury.
• Second-degree assault: Acquitted Aug. 30, 2018, by a Crow Wing County jury.
• Receiving stolen property, a firearm: Dismissed Nov. 19, 2018.
• Unlawful gambling: Acquitted March 22. Before the jury trial, the charge was lessened from a felony to a gross misdemeanor.
• Gambling on premises: Acquitted March 22. This misdemeanor charge was added before the jury trial by the prosecution.
• Selling vehicle financing without a license: Dismissed Friday.
• Falsely reporting a crime: Dismissed Friday.
In dismissing the charge of selling vehicle financing without a license, Ryan said sanctions by the Minnesota Department of Commerce sufficiently addressed the issue in his view.
The commerce department fined Hunter $30,000 in September 2017. Most of the fine-$25,000-was stayed so long as he complied with the cease and desist order telling him to stop the illegal activity. The illegal activity in particular that drew the ire of the state involved Hunter's car sales business, CI Auto, charging money to set up car payment plans on the vehicles it sold. The trouble was, in Minnesota, one needs to have a separate, specific license to operate as a vehicle sales finance company, which CI Auto did not have.
'Flat out lies'
Having the last of the charges dismissed was a huge relief for Hunter, Shaw said Monday during a phone interview. Shaw said the case strained Hunter's reputation since his arrest in March of 2017. Shaw said the accusations in the criminal complaint happened well before his arrest and the arrest shouldn't have happened at all.
"He was arrested, his mug shots were splashed all over the place by the city and the media and ... the accusations in the complaint and supporting documents written by the Crosby Police Department and the county attorney's office are ... flat out lies," Shaw said. "There are a lot of misstatements about distortions that made him seem like he was ... (drug lord) El Chapo or who knows what. People stopped doing business with him, his accountant cut us loose, his bank canceled his line of credit. People jump to conclusions and it's hard not to. People think he is a criminal and didn't want to deal with him.
"To live your whole life being law abiding, not getting into trouble and are in your late 60s and suddenly you are labeled all over a small community that you do business in ... it was extremely hard for him. The last two years, at times, were a living hell for him. We're very glad it is over but it never should have happened."
Shaw reiterated his stance-and has done so since the start of the case-the Crosby Police Department should not have investigated their own mayor. When authorities arrested Hunter in 2017, he was the mayor of Crosby. He was elected in November 2016 for a two-year term as Crosby mayor. After his arrest, he continued serving as the mayor until he resigned in August 2017. Hunter ran for mayor again, but lost his bid in the Nov. 6, 2018, election.
Shaw said when Hunter became mayor he asked some questions on how the police department should be run and he had a lot of concerns about how they were conducting business. Months later he was arrested.
"Why police did this is baffling to me," Shaw said. "At this point, what we would like to see is accountability with the police department. The case is over, but we need to know why this happened."
After talking with the Dispatch, Shaw also emailed the following statement: "In the interests of transparency and accountability, we are asking that the files concerning the investigation and prosecution of Mr. Hunter be opened to the public. The citizens of Crosby, and Crow Wing County deserve to know how much money was spent by the Crosby Police Department, and the Crow Wing County Attorney's Office, and who was responsible for deciding to investigate and prosecute Mr. Hunter.
"It is our hope that full disclosure will prevent the legal process from being used for political purposes again."