Judge orders media gag on attorneys in ex-Minnesota mayor's criminal case
BRAINERD, Minn. — If the defense or prosecution attorneys in the criminal case against former Crosby Mayor Jim Hunter want to speak to the media, they'll have to ask the judge first.
Crow Wing County Judge Earl E. Maus issued an order last week limiting media contact in response to a request from Assistant County Attorney Candace Prigge, representing the state in a case in which Hunter faces multiple felony charges.
The felony charges include theft by swindling, receiving stolen property, lawful gambling fraud and second-degree assault. Hunter also faces a gross misdemeanor for engaging in sales finance for motor vehicles without a license.
All charges stem from an allegation Hunter attempted to sell his business, Buy Sell Trade in Crosby, under false pretenses to his alleged lover's ex-husband.
Prigge requested the restriction following a story published in the Newshopper, a free Ironton-based publication produced by Editor Eric Heglund. The story, Prigge wrote, contained misrepresentations of testimony at a court proceeding, based on a news release sent by Hunter's attorney, Ed Shaw.
"One of the allegations in the article is that Lt. (Kevin) Randolph testified that Crosby police officers accept bribes," Prigge wrote. "That is patently false. Eric Heglund advised that he questioned the veracity of that information, however, Attorney Shaw did not respond to his questions prior to press time and Heglund printed it, because they didn't have time to verify it. Other information in the article is similarly misleading as to the actual testimony and legal issues addressed at the hearing."
Prigge asked the judge for a restrictive order that "parties be prohibited from discussing the case in the media through a press release, interviews or other disseminations of information to the public that is from the attorneys, their office staff or anyone involved in the investigation."
Prigge noted the Newshopper is a widely disseminated, free publication with the potential to prejudice a jury.
"In this case, the jury pool in Crow Wing County is small," Prigge wrote. "The defendant was a prominent member of the community when charges were filed. As such, press releases, like the ones that have been disseminated in this case, have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing a jury trial in this matter. Especially when false statements are made to the media about the testimony and demeanor of a witness in the matter."
In response, Shaw said he was willing to provide all news releases he's issued to the court, and expressed concern about the potential chilling effect on media if the judge grants such an order. Heglund was subpoenaed to appear in court Sept. 25 and to provide all his communications with Shaw.
"I would request that disclosure of communications to media be addressed by the court, after a hearing with notice to appropriate media outlets," Shaw wrote. "I would like the opportunity to address the release of communications between the Crosby Police Department and city government regarding Mr. Hunter's case, which I have requested and not received."
Shaw specifically referenced a radio interview Randolph engaged in concerning the Hunter case, the recording of which Shaw is seeking from both the radio station and the city of Crosby.
In another document submitted to the court, Shaw noted he communicated with the media in an attempt to present Hunter's side in addition to the allegations made in the criminal complaint.
"Numerous stories in the last few weeks have run about Mr. Hunter, they have often repeated the lurid and damaging accusations in the complaint," Shaw wrote. "Most have run with no input from myself or anyone on Mr. Hunter's behalf. ... Publicity surrounding this case has, to my knowledge, cost Mr. Hunter tens of thousands of dollars in business, and been extremely damaging to his reputation."
Shaw asked the judge to deny the state's request for relief. He went on to request if the judge was considering granting the request, to also require Randolph testify concerning his radio interview if recordings were not available.
In his order, Maus noted the importance of both parties receiving a fair trial, and stated it was in the "public's best interest and the best interest of justice" for attorneys to seek court approval prior to providing information to the media. Maus did not go so far as issuing a restrictive order—which would prohibit public access to public records in the proceeding. Maus said that order was not necessary at this time.
"The court notes, to be clear, the media is not restricted from covering this case through its own research and investigation," Maus wrote. "However, based on the ongoing issues with continued media communications and allegations of improper media communications, the court finds it is in the best interest of justice and a fair trial that the attorneys seek court approval prior to communicating with the media about this case."
The Crosby-Ironton Courier reported Sept. 27 that Shaw apologized for the error concerning the Crosby Police Department accepting bribes. It went on to state Shaw said in court that Randolph filed an ethics complaint against him with the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.