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Lawsuit battles continue over release of Costello investigative report

The question of whether Sheriff Larry Costello is or is not an employee of Clay County is at the center of a battle of legal briefs filed in Clay County District Court.

The question of whether Sheriff Larry Costello is or is not an employee of Clay County is at the center of a battle of legal briefs filed in Clay County District Court.

Forum Communications Co. filed a lawsuit last year asking a judge to order the release of a report the county commissioned in the wake of a complaint filed by deputy Kathy Cline against Costello.

Cline's complaint claimed Costello assaulted, stalked, harassed and discriminated against her. Cline subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against Costello and the county. In papers filed in federal court, Costello denied the allegations, stating that he had a consensual relationship with Cline.

The county has refused to hand over its investigative report on Costello, which included interviews with numerous county workers, claiming Costello is a county employee and therefore the data is private under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

The county also claims the report, known as the Pladson report, after DeAnn Pladson, the lawyer who did the investigating, is nonpublic data because it was commissioned for the purpose of defending against possible litigation.


The county states in one brief there are exceptions which authorize the release of investigative data "to aid the law enforcement process, promote public health or safety, or dispel widespread rumor or unrest."

However, the brief adds, "There are no facts in the present case that justify deferring to the exceptions of the general rule."

A brief filed by Forum Communications Co. contends Costello is not an employee but an employer who is not accountable to anyone other than Clay County citizens.

"Costello was not hired, and he cannot be fired," the brief states. "Employees can be disciplined. Clay County has no right or authority to discipline Costello."

The same Forum Communications Co. brief states that the county's only support for its position that Costello is an employee is that he receives the same benefits as employees and receives a W-2 notice.

"Gov. (Jesse) Ventura also likely receives benefits and a W-2, but it cannot be seriously argued that he is an 'employee' of Minnesota for purposes of the Government Data Practices Act," the brief argues.

The county argues in court filings that the benefits of releasing the report do not outweigh the harm that would be done to the people interviewed in the report and citizens of the county.

"Cline is seeking money damages in federal court," the county states in one brief. "The defendant in the federal litigation is Clay County. The money sought by Cline comes directly from the taxpayers of Clay County, the public.


"Ordering release of the Pladson report in its entirety at this stage of the proceedings would require Clay County to defend its lawsuit on the front page of the newspaper and on the nightly news, prior to defending themselves in federal court," the county's brief states.

In one of its court filings, Forum Communications Co. argues that it "is not seeking the information in order to sensationalize the relationship between Costello and Cline."

"Rather," the brief states, "(Forum Communications) is seeking the information so that the public has some type of independent and factual basis for judging whether Costello engaged in conduct that was wrongful and for which he should be held accountable by the citizens of Clay County."

Judge Wally Senyk, who works out of Fergus Falls, Minn., will decide whether or not the report, or portions of it, will be released. He has not set a timetable for his decision.

Forum Communications has requested that a hearing be set to allow for oral arguments. The hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Readers can reach Moorhead Bureau Chief Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

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