Former county commissioner Kevin Kelleher appears before the county board to discuss the DVD and drag racing scandals.
Former county commissioner Kevin Kelleher appears before the county board to discuss the DVD and drag racing scandals.

Former Houston County Commissioner Kevin Kelleher appeared before the county board on Sept. 11, urging commissioners to take action on Sheriff's Department misconduct, both in the past and more recently.

Kelleher reminded the board that no members of the department have ever been disciplined following a DVD copying investigation in 2010.

However, two county department heads were reprimanded on Aug. 24, 2010, for not reporting that affair.

On Feb. 28, Kelleher appeared before the board, asking that the county attorney impanel a grand jury to look into the case. He claimed then that the copying case involved members of the Sheriff's Department.

The latest incident dates from July 2012 when a Caledonia police officer and county deputy drag raced their squad cars on the runway of the Houston County Airport.

Caledonia police officer Chad Heuser was given a 28-day suspension for violating department rules during an Aug. 13 Caledonia City Council meeting. The county deputy (as yet unnamed) has not been suspended.

"You are ultimately responsible, and so you need to take some action," Kelleher told the board. "I have been before you and provided information regarding a blatant DVD copying operation in the Sheriff's Department... sue me if it's not true. I come before you as a citizen, and I can be sued if I libel someone. But I'm here to tell you, it's the facts and you know it.

"Something has to be done. When you look at this drag racing incident, it isn't just a prank. Those are law enforcement trained, licensed officers at a federal facility for air traffic. There are laws about that.

"As long as you have a situation where no one is held accountable, you're going to have problems. What happens when people get away with things? They think they can get away with the next thing. It's like raising kids.

"I've talked to Rochester police officers, I've talked to Winona County police officers, and we're a joke right now. They all are very aware of this. That isn't what we want Houston County law enforcement to be about."

"I can't disagree with what you're saying," Chairman Jack Miller replied. "I've had citizens ask, 'If I get a speeding ticket, do I get a DVD with it?' I've had prominent citizens ask me 'How fast are those squad cars, Jack?'

"It's embarrassing. We discussed this (drag racing) this morning (at the Law Committee meeting). We were told it's taken care of, and we're not suspending our officer.

"The sheriff's contention is that as an elected official the board has no authority (over his employees). We're working through that. It's a contention that I find hard to believe.

"I think that there are outstanding allegations of misconduct that should be addressed, and if nothing else, some type of a public apology from law enforcement should be forthcoming... along with an explanation of what is being done, if anything.

"It's an item of ridicule right now. This just is not acceptable. We recently talked budgets, and we have some new squad cars being asked for next year. My concern is how are they going to be used? Is it going to be patrolling the county like they're supposed to or being drag raced? It sounds like I'm being ridiculous, but I think the behavior in the department has been ridiculous."

Kelleher said the board should contact the Association of Minnesota Counties to sort out their next move.

"You can't eject elected officials. However, (in regards to) their employees, from my opinion from when I served 16 years on the county board, is that if you can't get cooperation from the elected officials to do the right thing, then you need to go ahead and do it.

"We need law enforcement in this county to be absolutely clean!"

Chief Deputy Scott Yeiter offered a rebuttal. "The DVD issue has been here for 3 1/2 years, and I'll remind the board that the sheriff told you about it at a June 2009 budget meeting. That's how the board learned about it. There was no attempt at a cover-up, and there have been multiple investigations that we have no control over."

"When has there ever been an allegation of a crime? And we're talking about a crime here, where we just hold an internal investigation?" Kelleher asked. "What county does that?"

"It should have been removed and brought to law enforcement in another county... It shouldn't have gone to a private attorney at $25,000, just to find out that no one will talk to her."

Yeiter said the drag racing did occur, and the county officer "freely admitted" his involvement.

"It is an anomaly in his record. It was a bad decision on his part, and it's been dealt with through an internal coaching session."

"I'm not going to get into what the city of Caledonia did, but there was more to their allegations," Yeiter added.

"I know of departments that have revolving complaints, rather than one or two in 3 1/2 years. To try and paint the department with a wide brush is a little demeaning to the work that's done. We do a good job. We've dealt with it, and I don't believe that it will ever happen again."

"It just seems to me that it's a little more egregious than something that would be dealt with by coaching," Miller said.

"I think the citizens of Houston County want their law enforcement to stop making stupid decisions," Kelleher said.

"There's more to this, too. It's not just these two incidents in 3 1/2 years."

Commissioners directed that Sheriff Doug Ely appear at their next meeting for additional discussions.

Update on this story

Since Tuesday's meeting, Ely told La Crosse area media outlets that he's not coming to the Sept. 18 board meeting.

"The DVD issue and the driving complaint are done and over with," he wrote to commissioners according to the La Crosse Tribune. "Any more discussion about these items on their part will be considered harassment."

Commissioner Jack Miller said the board is frustrated by the sheriff, especially because they learned of the drag race from constituents, not Ely.

"The issue is a little bigger than what the sheriff and chief deputy are making it," Miller said. "I certainly would have liked the full story from the sheriff instead of having citizens tell me."

It's unclear what will happen if Ely doesn't attend the meeting.

"(Ely) doesn't necessarily answer to the board," Miller said, "but we are the budgeting board, and I believe our jurisdiction does cover over employees in his office."