By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — A Mankato law firm is involved in a class-action lawsuit against a Department of Natural Resources manager accused of illegally downloading driver’s license information for dozens of Minnesota women, including well-known television news reporters.
The federal civil lawsuit filed by Farrish Johnson Law Office in Mankato claims John Austin Hunt, 48, of Woodbury accessed about 19,000 motor vehicle records between January 2008 and October 2012. There were more than 7,000 people involved.
“In addition to the enormous volume of queries, the subjects of Hunt’s searches raised concerns in that the were approximately 94 percent female,” a Farrish Johnson news release said. “The searches included DNR employees, TV news people and local celebrities.”
Scott Kelly, an attorney with Farrish Johnson Law Office in Mankato, said the 15 women and two men now being named as clients are all from the Twin Cities area. There are other potential clients, some well-known, from the Twin Cities who haven’t been named. He has been working on the case with Farrish Johnson attorneys William Partridge and Dan Bellig.
Hunt was fired from the DNR in January. After an investigation by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and other agencies, Hunt was charged earlier this month with six counts of misconduct by a public employee, unauthorized computer access, using encryption to conceal a crime and unlawful use of public data. That investigation found Hunt had downloaded 172 Driver and Vehicle Services records onto an encrypted file on his computer, according to the lawsuit.
Kelly said there are at least two other law firms representing people who have received letters from the DNR saying their information was accessed illegally. He said they are talking about working together for a class-action lawsuit. Only about 300 letters have been sent out so far as a result of the DNR investigation, Kelly said.
“ If people receive a letter, they should check with DNR to find out when the information was accessed and how many times it was accessed,” Kelly said.
Hunt’s activities came to light after a woman he had met realized he knew things about her that he shouldn’t have, Kelly said. The investigation by the three Farrish Johnson attorneys found Hunt was apparently using the records to screen women on Match.com, an online dating service. The records would show whether the women were using their real photograph. They also revealed addresses, ages, heights, weights and full names.
“He got the names on Match, looked them up and met the women,” Kelly said. “He knew where they lived and he knew what their photo looked like.”
Kelly also learned many DNR employees are concerned about their motor vehicle records being accessed. When the agency called a meeting for the employees whose information had been illegally accessed, about 200 people were there. Some of those people don’t want to complain because they are concerned about being fired, the news release said.
“Many, in checking their records, noted multiple queries were made of their DVS records,” the release said. “It also appears Hunt may have accessed records of supervisors, their spouses and their children.”
The lawsuit also names the state of Minnesota; the DNR; Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner; Jim Conrad, DNR enforcement director; and Rodmen Smith, DNR assistant director of enforcement.
“Our claim against the DNR is (Hunt) isn’t the first one to use this information illegally,” Kelly said. “He was only supposed to be looking up 200 names per year. He trained everyone how to use it and the law for using it. His supervisors weren’t supervising him.”
Hunt’s supervisors said he shouldn’t have needed to use the information system more than 400 times per year, still far less than the average of 4,000 times per year he was using it. Most of the queries were made while Hunt was off duty.
Kelly, Partridge and Bellig have been going through thousands of records of incidents where employees at other agencies throughout the state have accessed the driver information illegally. Kelly said he has run across one Blue Earth County employee, but that situation was taken care of immediately.
The law firm has filed two other lawsuits, one against Rock County and another against a Minneapolis agency, Kelly said. In the Rock County case a family services employee is accused of illegally accessing about 4,000 motor vehicle records.
Letters were sent out to 3,000 victims in the Rock County case and 1,100 victims in Minneapolis, Kelly said. It’s more common for other agencies in the state to not notify people when their information has been accessed illegally.
“It’s a problem throughout every agency,” Kelly said.