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Five current and two former Hennepin County Sheriff's Office employees are suing the county, alleging a workplace "filled with bigotry and fear" under former Sheriff Dave Hutchinson.

Sheriff Dawanna Witt, who was elected in 2022 and replaced Hutchinson, is among the plaintiffs who allege the former sheriff used derogatory terms like "hood rat," "gorilla" and "pedophile," while he "brutally demeaned" his subordinates because of their race and sexual orientation. She emphasized that the behavior happened before she took office in 2023.

The complaint, filed Wednesday in Hennepin County District Court, claims Hutchinson routinely threatened to fire people, talked about killing those who crossed him and waved his loaded service weapon around. The plaintiffs said at one point they worried Hutchinson would commit a mass shooting at the office.

Five of the plaintiffs still work in leadership roles at the Sheriff's Office. They claim Hutchinson violated Minnesota's Human Rights and Whistleblower acts as well as state law.

"We can't let this go," Witt said during a Wednesday news conference at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis. She promised not to let the case affect her work as sheriff: "I owe it to everyone to do what I believe is right."

The allegations reflect the findings of an investigation that county leaders ordered in 2022. In December 2022, the County Board released a report about Hutchinson's behavior and unanimously voted to censure him.

In a statement, Hennepin County spokeswoman Carolyn Marinan said it was disappointing that Sheriff's Office leaders decided to sue. She noted that all county leaders, "including the managers and supervisors who filed this lawsuit," are responsible for reporting discrimination and disrespectful behavior.

"County administration took prompt action to investigate these claims once alerted, and worked diligently to address Sheriff Hutchinson's conduct during a very challenging time with support from the County Board," the statement said. "The county will vigorously defend against these claims."

At the time he was censured, Hutchinson denied the allegations against him and said they were driven by him being Minnesota's first openly gay sheriff. Attempts to reach Hutchinson on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Tim Stout, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office chief of staff, left, and attorney Steven Andrew Smith look on as Sheriff Dawanna Witt discusses a lawsuit Sheriff's Office leaders filed Wednesday, April 10, 2024, against the county. The...
Tim Stout, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office chief of staff, left, and attorney Steven Andrew Smith look on as Sheriff Dawanna Witt discusses a lawsuit Sheriff's Office leaders filed Wednesday, April 10, 2024, against the county. The...

Christopher Magan

Steven Andrew Smith, attorney for the Sheriff's Office employees, disputes that county leaders moved quickly to address concerns about Hutchinson's behavior. He said the lawsuit was about more than Hutchinson being a bad manager and sheriff.

"This case is about the failure of the county to provide a safe work environment, free of discrimination and retaliation," Smith said. "Time and time again, Hennepin County failed to create a safe workplace."

Smith acknowledged that the plaintiffs have been discussing their case with county officials for about a year and had one mediation session but could not reach a settlement.

The deputies say they began reporting Hutchinson's alleged behavior months after he took office, in summer 2019, but county officials initially refused to take action. They say Hutchinson became more volatile after he crashed his county vehicle while drunk in 2021 with "angry outbursts and vengeful threats." Hutchinson pleaded guilty to DWI after the northern Minnesota crash, which totaled his vehicle.

After one "explosive meeting," according to the lawsuit, the deputies said they felt like "sitting ducks" who could be victims of a mass shooting. Tim Stout, chief of staff for the sheriff, said at one point Hutchinson's behavior led him to ask deputies from the Washington County Sheriff's Office to guard his home.

"Hennepin County refused to take any meaningful steps to address our concerns and help us feel safe at work or at home," Stout said during Wednesday's news conference.

County officials launched an investigation in April 2022 and Hutchinson went on leave that May. The lawsuit says while on leave the former sheriff continued to disparage them and threatened to retaliate against whistleblowers and those who crossed him.

After an outside investigator submitted a report that detailed dozens of racist, sexist, homophobic and bullying incidents, the County Board voted unanimously to censure Hutchinson. The vote came just weeks before his term ended and he did not seek re-election.

Hutchinson attempted to return to his previous post with Metro Transit police. But he was placed on leave, investigated and fired over his behavior as sheriff.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the county include Chief Deputy Tracey Martin; Maj. Daniel Kurtz, of the administrative services bureau; Danielle Baggett, a senior administrative assistant; Patrick King, the former leader of the investigations bureau; and Jeffrey Storms, former leader of the administrative services bureau.

The lawsuit says the deputies are seeking unspecified damages in excess of $50,000.

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