County attorney is owed an apology | BrainerdDispatch.com | Brainerd, Minnesota

County attorney is owed an apology

GUEST COLUMN

Posted: November 28, 2011 - 7:40pm

Last Thursday, this newspaper reported that Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan would not bring criminal charges against Taylor Stevenson for threats he allegedly made this fall. Apparently, Mr. Stevenson had quipped that he could have some people phone in threats to the county board. He was responding to the county board’s decision to consider abolishing the Human Rights Commission, of which he was also a member. After a thorough review, Mr. Ryan determined that the facts did not support prosecution by his office. He found that Mr. Stevenson’s off-the-cuff remarks, while ill-considered, were not criminal.

Responding in a prepared statement, Josh and Keri Heintzeman, Stevenson’s accusers, now accuse the county attorney’s office of impropriety. The Heintzemans’ statement claims “... it is not what you know, but who you know that makes your case.” This inflammatory charge would also be defamatory if Mr. Ryan were not a public figure. And as an elected official, he certainly understands that such scurrilous attacks occasionally come with the territory.

But let’s be clear on several issues: first, every prosecuting authority must decide whether the facts in any case can be—and should be—successfully prosecuted. That is Mr. Ryan’s sworn duty, and that’s what he gets paid to do. Second, Mr. Ryan cannot “let the jury decide” cases simply because someone else has a keen interest in pursuing a criminal action. Taking that approach would abdicate a prosecutor’s duty and would grind our already overburdened judicial system to a halt. Third, the Crow Wing County Attorney’s Office seems to have conducted a reasonable investigation of the facts in this case. No actual threats were made, and no county commissioners felt threatened.

Last, and most important: just because you take issue with the prosecutor’s findings, you don’t get to recklessly accuse him of misconduct without some of us objecting to such nonsense. Disagree with Mr. Ryan’s decision all you want to. Write letters to the editor. Grouse about it to anyone who will listen. But don’t cry “fraud” and hurl baseless accusations.

Mr. Stevenson made spontaneous — and inappropriate — comments “in the heat of battle.” He apologized for what he said, and he admitted that it was wrong. The Heintzemans released a written statement alleging unsubstantiated fraud and other misconduct by the Crow Wing County Attorney’s Office. They should show the same decency by publicly apologizing to Mr. Ryan and his staff in these pages.

JONATHAN YAHN works as a corporate attorney for a private Baxter company. A Pequot Lakes resident, Yahn served as assistant Crow Wing County attorney from 1991-1993.