A lawsuit filed Thursday, Sept. 19, alleges two former officials of the Crosby Police Department defamed former Crosby Mayor James Hunter by falsely accusing him of several crimes.
A news release from Ed Shaw -- the attorney who represented Hunter through three criminal trials in 2018 and 2019 -- stated the defamation complaint seeks to hold former Police Chief Kim Coughlin, former Lt. Kevin Randolph and the city of Crosby accountable for what Shaw described as systematic harassment against his client. Shaw also stated Coughlin and Randolph pursued prosecution of Shaw based on accusations they knew were false.
“Ms. Coughlin, Mr. Randolph, and the leaders of the City of Crosby used public resources to engage in a campaign to prevent Mr. Hunter from becoming Mayor, and after Mr. Hunter became elected, to remove him from office and discredit him by using false accusations against him,” the release stated. “This campaign began in 2016, and lasted into this year, when the last charges against Mr. Hunter were dismissed. Ms. Coughlin and Mr. Randolph acted in their official capacity using thousands of dollars of taxpayer staff time to attack Mr. Hunter for their own personal gain.”
Attorney Joe Flynn of Lake Elmo-based law firm Jardine, Logan & O'Brien represents the defendants in the case.
“We don't believe the allegations in the complaint have merit and we intend to respond to Mr. Hunter in court in the next few days,” Flynn said during a phone interview Thursday, noting he would not comment on the nature of that response at this time.
Coughlin, who retired Friday, Sept. 13, after more than 15 years with the Crosby Police Department, declined to comment on the lawsuit. A message left with Randolph -- who left the department in April -- was not immediately returned Thursday. An employee of Ed Shaw Law indicated Shaw would provide additional comments at a news conference scheduled 10 a.m. Friday.
Hunter was elected mayor in November 2016 for a two-year term. In 2017, Hunter was accused of swindling $90,000 from a man who bought one of Hunter’s businesses, assault involving the son of the man who accused him of swindle, and engaging in the business of a vehicle finance company in the state without a license. Hunter initially was charged in March 2017 with four felonies of theft by swindle, second-degree assault, 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 but related case. Hunter resigned as mayor that same month.
Crow Wing County juries in three separate trials acquitted Hunter of nearly all the charges. In the midst of these trials, Hunter ran for mayor again in 2018, but failed to win the seat. The charges involving vehicle financing and falsely reporting a crime were dismissed by the county attorney’s office in April of this year.
In dismissing the charge of selling vehicle financing without a license, County Attorney Don Ryan said in April 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.
“Mr. Hunter endured over two years of defending himself against serious crimes, some of which could have sent him to prison,” Shaw’s news release stated. “No citizen should have to go through what Mr. Hunter went through. It is our hope that this action will achieve justice for Mr. Hunter, hold the responsible parties accountable, and allow the citizens of Crosby to finally move forward with new leadership that they can trust.”
Shaw has repeatedly argued in the past the charges against Hunter were politically motivated, accusations that led to a rare press briefing by longtime county attorney Ryan in June.
“I am not privy to any information nor am I aware of any information that would support that there was a political agenda or some kind of political persecution through prosecution that occurred in this case,” Ryan said at the time.
Shaw went on to indicate others within Crosby city government were forced to engage in the alleged illegal activity led by Coughlin and Randolph.
“In taking this action, Mr. Hunter and I understand that many citizens of Crosby, and many employees of the city and police department, have lived in fear over the last several years and may have seen, or even been forced to participate in inappropriate and illegal activities,” the release stated. “It is our hope that with Ms. Coughlin and Mr. Randolph no longer at the police department, and other leadership changes coming in the near future, residents and city employees, and police officers will now feel free to come forward and speak the truth about what they have seen happen.”
Hunter’s defamation lawsuit is the second filed against Coughlin, Randolph and the city of Crosby this year. In April, former Crosby police officer Jesse Smith filed suit, alleging his reputation was harmed and multiple violations of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. Smith was twice fired from his job, but was reinstated both times through arbitration before he voluntarily resigned in July 2017. That case remains open.