When James Hunter was elected as Crosby mayor in 2016, he said he “came after them pretty hard.”
Them, meaning the city of Crosby.
For the first time since being cleared on several criminal charges filed against him, Hunter spoke publicly Friday, Sept. 20, during a brief press conference hosted by his attorney Ed Shaw at Shaw’s law office in Brainerd.
Shaw has represented Hunter since he was charged in March 2017 with 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. Hunter also was charged in August 2017 for falsely reporting a crime in a separate case.
During a two-year court battle, all the charges against Hunter -- tried separately -- were dismissed or he was acquitted by a jury of his peers.
It’s been about five months since April 19, when the last case came to a close for Hunter. Now Hunter, along with his attorney, are fighting back. Shaw invited media representatives to the press conference where Shaw announced the filing of a lawsuit by Hunter alleging two former officials of the Crosby Police Department defamed Hunter by falsely accusing him of several crimes.
The defamation complaint, filed in Crow Wing County District Court, lists former Police Chief Kim Coughlin, former Lt. Kevin Randolph and the city of Crosby as the defendants, holding them accountable for what Shaw described in a news release as systematic harassment against his client.
“Mr. Hunter had no criminal history, he never committed a crime or seen the inside of a jail cell,” Shaw said. “He was arrested by about a dozen officers at his business in Crosby, minding his own business. … It was a high profile arrest and he was handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car and went to jail out of the blue. His home, business and vehicle were searched from top to bottom and all his records were seized by the Crosby Police Department.
“A criminal complaint was filed against him and a probable cause statement (was written) that frankly belonged in a bad detective novel. Every accusation they could think of, accusing Mr. Hunter of threatening witnesses -- possible fleeing to Mexico is a complete fantasy. He never threatened anyone and he was not going anywhere.”
Shaw described it as a calculated strategy by Coughlin and Randolph, as Hunter was critical about the efficiency of the operations of the police department. Shaw said Coughlin and Randolph need to be held accountable for their actions and that is why the lawsuit was filed.
“A goal in this (lawsuit) is for Crosby to have a democracy that functions, a government that is accountable to its citizens and a place where citizens can speak out,” Shaw said, adding when a citizen is elected into office, it can be “without fear of being treated like Mr. Hunter on trumped up charges.”
Hunter said the court case has been a long process and has been “terrible.” But it happened, he said, and now he has to deal with it.
“It is very emotional,” Hunter said. “You try to do what’s right and even though you think everything out and think you did the right thing -- when people come against you it makes you feel like, ‘Did I do something wrong or did I not?’ We went to the (court) system and it says you didn’t.
“I feel every citizen should stand up for what they believe in. Crosby is a good place and there are many good people there and many good police officers there. Right now is the time for Crosby to blossom. …The community needs to stick together.”
Hunter said filing the lawsuit against the city is not about himself.
“It’s about the people,” he said. “We need to stand up for ourselves. It is very hard and it’s very costly and it’s been very, very hard on my health. All the people need to be represented fairly. ... I think there has been an injustice and it needs to be addressed. I think God will prevail and it will come out the way it is supposed to.”
Shaw said Hunter deserves a lot of credit. He said Hunter could have made his life much easier if he hadn’t run for mayor and would have just minded his own business, laid low and cruised into retirement.
“None of this would have happened,” Shaw said if Hunter didn’t run for mayor. “But he had things to say and wanted to speak up. You (looking at Hunter) wanted to make your city better. And you caught a huge amount of flack for it.”
When Hunter said he went after the city hard after being elected into office, Shaw told him that it is OK for him to do that as an elected official.
“That is how the political process works,” Shaw told Hunter. “You run for office and … it is perfectly legal as a candidate to say you want to clean house, want new leadership. You are allowed to do that.”
Shaw said if the citizens do not like what a political candidate is stating, they don’t have to vote them into office. And once elected, if other council members don’t like what is being proposed, they don’t have to vote in favor of it.
Hunter had gone through all this with grace and dignity, Shaw said, adding that it’s time for the city of Crosby to be held accountable.
The civil lawsuit
The lawsuit against Coughlin, Randolph and the city asks for an amount in excess of $50,000 against the defendants -- jointly and separately. Hunter is also asking the court for costs, disbursements and reasonable attorney fees and any other further relief the court deems to be just, fair and equitable.
The civil complaint states Coughlin and Randolph made false and defamatory statement about Hunter with the interest of preventing him from becoming mayor. It states while they were in uniform, they began a campaign of communicating with other people in and around Crosby with a goal of falsely accusing Hunter of several criminal acts to prevent him from becoming mayor. After he was elected, the defendants undertook a course of action designed to discredit Hunter by making these false and defamatory statements to prevent him from taking office or forcing him to resign by damaging his personal and business reputation, the complaint stated.
Shaw stated the defendants spent thousands of dollars of taxpayer staff time to attack Hunter for its 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.
On Friday, attorney Pat Collins from Jardine, Logan & O'Brien said they would not make any comments on the lawsuit in a press conference setting, only in the courtroom.
Coughlin Friday declined to comment on the lawsuit.