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Attorney accuses Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office of turning blind eye to harassment complaint

The complaint stated the employee used their position to attempt to solicit sexual favors from subordinates and community members and requested their immediate suspension and a third-party investigation.

The Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office Command Center vehicle.
The Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office Command Center vehicle.
Brainerd Dispatch file photo
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BRAINERD — A Brainerd attorney accused the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office of failing to properly investigate allegations of sexual harassment and abuse of authority by a sheriff’s office employee.

Attorney Ed Shaw issued a news release Tuesday, March 22, alleging no meaningful investigation by the sheriff’s office or an independent agency occurred after a Feb. 23 complaint accused the employee of multiple instances of misconduct. The complaint stated the employee used their position to attempt to solicit sexual favors from subordinates and community members and requested their immediate suspension and a third-party investigation.

“Due to the serious conduct alleged in the complaint which involves abuse of authority by a high-ranking individual within the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office to solicit relationships from individuals that he works with and members of the public, and generally engage in sexually harassing behavior while on duty, an outside investigation, as requested in the complaint, is critical in order to provide accountability, justice for the victims, and to ensure that this behavior stops and does not happen again,” the release stated.

“My clients are going to the media because they have no other option, the Sheriff’s Office has so far not shown any interest in holding the individuals involved accountable.”

We get complaints of various nature all the time. We treat every complaint seriously and investigate if need be. That’s our standard practice.
Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle.

The release also stated a demonstration is planned outside the sheriff’s office at 3:45 p.m. Thursday “to support accountability and an independent investigation.”

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An attempt to reach the accused employee for comment Tuesday was not successful. A request of the sheriff’s office to speak with Sheriff Scott Goddard was directed to Capt. Adam Kronstedt, who deferred to County Administrator Tim Houle for comment.

Houle confirmed Tuesday that the subject of the complaint remains employed with the sheriff’s office and is not on administrative leave or a forced leave of absence. Houle would not say whether the employee is actively working at this time.

“We get complaints of various nature all the time. We treat every complaint seriously and investigate if need be,” Houle said. “That’s our standard practice.”

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Reached later Tuesday by phone, Goddard said the county has been in contact with Shaw and his clients, who are not alleged victims but are representing the interests of those who have said they faced harassment. Goddard questioned the newsworthiness of the complaints at this stage without any outcome of the inquiry. He also noted Shaw’s clients are not sheriff’s office employees and he described the information as thirdhand.

“Truly it’s, you know, to say that there’s a Crow Wing County employee alleging this, I guess I don’t read that when you read the complaint,” Goddard said. “ … They’re not the complainant. The complainants are two people that hired an attorney. That’s the thirdhand information I’m getting at.”

The complaint includes the full names of two accusers employed by the sheriff’s office. The Dispatch is withholding the identities of the accusers and the accused because they were not reached for comment Tuesday. A request for comment from an attorney representing one of the accusers was not returned.

Included with Shaw’s news release was a copy of the complaint the attorney sent to Goddard last month. It lists alleged impropriety including solicitation of sexual relationships with two subordinates. One of those subordinates said the accused also made comments about her physical appearance and indicated they were watching her on a regular basis with no connection to their official duties. Also outlined was inappropriate conduct toward other subordinates, which according to the complaint was reported with no action taken and no formal investigation.

The complaint also claims the accused harassed employees at the Starbucks in Baxter, including following one employee to her home.

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“That employee told her supervisor and others, and requested the assistance of Baxter officers to follow her home,” the complaint alleged. “ … This issue was previously reported to the Sheriff’s Department on multiple occasions, it appears that no action of any kind was taken, no investigation was conducted.”

The complaint noted the incidents mentioned were those known to Shaw’s clients and represented a “disturbing pattern of behavior and abuse of authority” that could extend to other interactions.

My clients are going to the media because they have no other option, the Sheriff’s Office has so far not shown any interest in holding the individuals involved accountable.
Attorney Ed Shaw, in a news release.

Shaw said by phone Tuesday an attorney representing Crow Wing County told him there was an investigation into the complaint. According to Shaw, however, none of the alleged harassment victims nor relevant witnesses were contacted. A message left with the attorney Shaw said he spoke with was not returned Tuesday.

“I think it’s fair to say that the investigation was cursory at best and was not conducted by any kind of independent agency,” Shaw said. “It would appear that little or nothing was actually done, and they certainly haven’t provided any kind of verification as to what was done. … It’s incumbent on them to come forward with an explanation on that. They’ve chosen not to, so I think the most reasonable inference we can make is that the answer was no, they didn’t do that.”

Shaw’s clients are two people representing the interests of the alleged victims, some of whom have chosen to remain anonymous to the public, he said. One of those clients is Ann Hunnicutt, a retired Baxter police officer who said Tuesday she was directly involved in conversations with the Starbucks employees accusing the sheriff’s office employee of harassment at the time of the incident.

Hunnicutt said they’ve reached out to Goddard directly multiple times and have not received a response. She said they’ve gathered evidence and have spoken directly to five accusers thus far, who’ve said they’re willing to be part of an investigation.

“(We) have enough experience with this stuff that we are advocating for the victims who are afraid to speak out because of fear of retaliation or judgments or fear of losing their job,” Hunnicutt said. “ … That’s why we hired an attorney, so he can do everything that — we want to adhere to the law, we want to protect the rights of the victims. And all we’re asking is for an outside investigation into these sexual harassment complaints.”

Hunnicutt said as a former officer, she’s particularly troubled the sheriff’s office does not appear to be treating the accusers appropriately.

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“Police are held to a higher standard, and when complaints come forward, they need to be treated seriously,” Hunnicutt said. “ … I will fight on behalf of these victims because the leadership is not taking it seriously. And these victims have a right to be heard, and they have a right to be protected.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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