An administrative law judge has dismissed a complaint against Brainerd City Council member Gary Scheeler.
The complaint, alleging Scheeler used bribery while campaigning for his position last year, has no evidence, ruled Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings Judge LauraSue Schlatter.
“It was not a credible complaint. It was a personal vendetta against me,” Scheeler said.
He added, “Only a person with a vendetta can turn an act of kindness into something evil.”
The complaint was filed in late October by Brainerd resident Jeff Czeczok. Czeczok responded to the dismissal with an email message late Friday.
“The dismissal shows that a candidate can admit to actions that comprise prima facie violations of campaign bribery law before the entire city council without a single member of that council taking action. Also, when a concerned citizen does bring action, after months of delay due to closed meeting law, the executive branch of state government, not the courts, is there to cover the proper backsides with extremely generous statutes of limitations,” he wrote. “I’ve done what I can to hold government officials accountable. I’m proud of my efforts, and will continue them.”
Czeczok ran against Scheeler during the last race for city council, but Scheeler came out victorious. Both men serve on the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Commission. Scheeler also had a restraining order against Czeczok that ended in fall 2005 after Scheeler alleged Czeczok threatened to kill Scheeler in a 2004 phone call. Czeczok at one point denied threatening to kill Scheeler. Czeczok pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. As part of a plea agreement charges of felony terroristic threats and gross misdemeanor harassment were dismissed.
The complaint stems from comments Scheeler made during a closed session meeting on Jan. 7, 2013 when the city council was discussing possibly giving raises during a round of union contract negotiations.
The complaint said Scheeler, while campaigning for the 2012 race, gave money to a woman and her two children for a meal. It also said Scheeler told a homeless man to go to Brainerd Country Power and apply for a job. (Scheeler owns the business.)
Czeczok argued those actions qualify as buying votes. Scheeler said he was just trying to help out those in need.
According to Schlatter’s dismissal order, Minnesota statutes do not prohibit charitable donations from candidates for public office. Instead, it bans gifts that are given to convince voters to vote a certain way.
“Czeczok has not presented any evidence that Mr. Scheeler fraudulently concealed his interactions with the woman and homeless man at issue. On the contrary, it appears Mr. Scheeler openly disclosed to the entire City Council and other city officials the existence of the facts that form the basis of the complaint.”
Schlatter continued that Czeczok failed to show that Scheeler promised the homeless man employment in order to get him to vote for Scheeler.
“Likewise,” the judge ruled, “there is no evidence that Mr. Scheeler’s offer of money to the impoverished woman was intended as anything other than a charitable donation.”
It’s still unclear if the two residents lived in Scheeler’s ward or if they could even vote for him, the judge said.
Scheeler says he’s moving on and doesn’t hold a grudge against Czeczok.
“I’m very happy it’s over,” he said. “I said the truth would prevail and it did.”
He added, “I question how (Czeczok) can live with himself, taking an act of kindness and turning it into bitterness.”
Because of the dismissal, an evidentiary hearing previously scheduled for Feb. 10 is canceled.
A second complaint filed against Scheeler late last year was dismissed in December because it was not filed within one year of the alleged incident, which is required in Minnesota.
The complaint, alleging that Scheeler gave a Cub Foods gift card to a prospective voter, was also filed by Czeczok.
It included an affidavit from city council member Mary Koep, which said a resident told Koep that Scheeler knocked on her door to ask for her vote during the 2012 campaign season and the resident “told him she wasn’t going to vote for him after the way he had hung up on her when she had called him previously to discuss an issue. She told me (Koep) he left but returned later with a gift card from Cub Foods.”
Koep said she asked the woman to report the incident, but she refused to because “she was afraid of retaliation” from Scheeler.
Scheeler said he will pursue attorney fees from both Czeczok and Koep for the two cases. Scheeler isn’t sure of the exact amount he’s racked up in fees, but says it’s “sizeable.”
“I feel since (Czeczok) brought non-credible charges and (Koep) lied, they should have to pay (the fees),” Scheeler said.
During an earlier interview with the Dispatch, Koep insisted she wasn’t lying. “I’m definitely not lying,” she said. “That’s what (the resident) told me.”