Shared from the 1/12/2020 Duluth News Tribune eEdition

Mille Lacs County judge dismisses case citing vindictive prosecution

County attorney denies allegations, requests reconsideration

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Walsh

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Quinn

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Lindgren

MILACA, Minn. — Findings of vindictive prosecution by Mille L a c s C o u n t y A t t o r - ney Joe Walsh and w i l l f u l d e s t r u c - tion of e v i d e n c e by the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office led to the dismissal of a felony perjury charge against a Wahkon woman.

Mille Lacs County Judge Matthew M. Quinn issued an order Dec. 23 sanctioning the state of M i n n e - sota for d e s t r u c - tion of e v i d e n c e t h r o u g h t h e shredding of documents relevant to the criminal prosecution of Lucinda Lou Miller. The order also dismissed the perjury charge against Miller due to “a realistic likelihood of vindictiveness on the part of the County Attorney’s Office’s decision to charge Defendant with perjury.”

Quinn argued the perjury prosecution came as part of a pressure campaign by Miller’s former boyfriend and business partner Brockton Holbert, who together with his attorneys appeared to lobby for criminal charges as a means to force Miller to settle a lengthy civil lawsuit Holbert believed threatened one of his businesses.

But Walsh isn’t going down without a fight. The county attorney penned a letter Dec. 30 strongly denying any wrongdoing in his office’s decision to charge Miller and requesting reconsideration on the basis Quinn should be removed from the criminal proceedings. Quinn is also the judge presiding over the civil dispute between Miller and Holbert, from which the perjury case stemmed. In an order Monday, Quinn granted permission to Walsh to file a motion seeking reconsideration, after which a briefing schedule may be created.

By phone Tuesday, Walsh said despite the judge’s potential conflict of interest, his office didn’t request a new judge for the criminal case in deference to the bench.

“We’re a small county and obviously there are only three judges in Mille Lacs County. As a sign of courtesy to the bench, we typically assume that they are able to set aside biases and knowledge they may gain through other outside cases,” Walsh said. “In this case, it appears that the judge wasn’t able to do so. That actually is what we’ve requested reconsideration about, is the code of judicial conduct stating that a judge shall disqualify himself if he has bias concerning personal knowledge of facts that are in dispute or he previously presided as a judge over the matter in another court.”

A closer look at the cases

Miller’s civil lawsuit — filed November 2015 — seeks equitable relief and the dissolution and liquidation of assets of Noble Wear, an Onamia-based business providing custom apparel through screen printing and embroidery. Among a number of other claims, Miller alleges due in part to loans she made to the business totaling $90,000, she was a co-owner/shareholder of Noble Wear with Holbert. Holbert, meanwhile, alleges Miller wrongfully took personal property belonging to him in addition to denying Miller’s ownership claims.

The perjury allegedly occurred when Miller stated in a November 2016 deposition she did not know the whereabouts of a door, reportedly worth $20,000, and a mantle Holbert claimed she took. In a second deposition in February 2017, Miller reversed her statement, indicating she did know where the property was.

A few weeks later, the door and mantle were discovered in storage on the property of a third party known to Miller. Holbert took the items after he apparently enlisted the help of a Mille Lacs County sheriff’s deputy, according to an email from Miller’s attorney, Joseph Kantor, to Holbert’s attorney, Richard Curott.

In an affidavit filed a day later, Miller stated she hadn’t shared the location of the door and mantle earlier because “(she) was scared that (Holbert) would show up and steal more of (her) property.”

In July 2018, the county attorney’s office filed two felony perjury charges against Miller — one concerning the property matter, and another concerning alleged perjury about a prior arrest in Kentucky. The state later dismissed the second charge but continued to pursue the first.

In seeking dismissal of the remaining perjury charge, Miller and her lawyers argued Holbert and his attorneys sought criminal prosecution as a way to pressure Miller into settling the civil dispute and coordinated those efforts with the county attorney’s office. Quinn found merit in Miller’s argument, based on a number of factors.

Among them was the timing of the criminal charges, which came shortly after the court sanctioned Holbert for intentional destruction of evidence due to the deletion of years of his and Miller’s emails. The sanction leveled against Holbert meant a future jury would be instructed Miller was a 50% owner of Noble Wear, and the matter would no longer be an issue for trial. The judge also cited documented correspondence between Holbert and his attorneys with sheriff’s office and county attorney’s office officials.

Quinn also pointed to County Attorney Walsh’s previous six-year employment with Curott and Associates, Curott’s law firm, as a possible explanation for why Walsh “would make such a potentially unethical decision.”

Quinn went on to argue that by shredding a number of documents, the sheriff’s office assisted in the violation of Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure. In January 2019, Assistant County Attorney Ben Wold acknowledged a sheriff’s investigator shredded an unspecified number of documents “unrelated to his criminal investigation against Ms. Miller” in an email to Miller’s lawyer, Timothy Maher. Documents destroyed included a letter from Holbert to former Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren, r e q u e s t - ing the s h e r i f f ’ s o f f i c e i n v e s - t i g a t e M i l l e r ’ s a l l e g e d p e r j u r y to avoid the loss of Noble Wear. The letter is part of the record in the civil lawsuit.

County attorney responds

On stationery featuring the tagline “Justice Without Fear or Favor,” Walsh hit back at a number of Quinn’s arguments, starting with his limited involvement in the case.

Walsh accused Quinn of being unable to separate himself from the related civil matter, arguing the judge should have recused himself on his own without needing a request from either party. He pointed to the unusual inclusion of a large number of documents and facts derived from the civil lawsuit in the order, which is a departure from typical practice in a criminal matter.

The county attorney found fault in Quinn’s factual and legal bases for his decision, stating the cases cited in the judge’s order lacked relevance or similarities to the matter at hand.

Walsh rejected Quinn’s argument that his previous employment with Curott’s law office had any impact on his office’s decision to pursue criminal charges against Miller. He wrote he is neither under the control or Curott, nor does he condone his actions.

“I knocked on 4,000 doors for the privilege of quitting my job with Mr. Curott, and I would do it again. Mr. Curott wields no influence on me or my office,” Walsh wrote.

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