Two St. Paul police officers are suing former Chief John Harrington for defamation and violation of state data practices laws, claiming that he acted with "ill will and spite" against them.

Officers Brian Wanschura and Christopher McGuire each filed suit Thursday in Ramsey County District Court against Harrington and the city over a 2009 incident where a man was injured when the officers forced him to the ground.

The department launched an internal affairs investigation, and Harrington found the officers culpable of excessive force, the complaint said.

The St. Paul Police Federation contested Harrington's findings of excessive force, and the chief eventually issued McGuire a written reprimand for a "procedure violation" and suspended Wanschura for two days for "improper conduct."

The officers' attorney, Chris Wachtler, said the problem is that before the federation's grievance could be resolved, Harrington sent a letter to Keith Dawson stating that the officers used excessive force and that discipline was pending.

That violates the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, Wachtler said.

"They weren't disciplined for excessive force," he said. "That's an inflammatory phrase."

According to the two suits, the officers were working traffic detail at the Minnesota State Fair when a pedestrian, Dawson, disobeyed their orders to stop crossing the street.

McGuire put his hand on Dawson's chest, and the officers forced him to the ground when he became unruly.

Dawson spit blood into McGuire's face, the suits say.

Harrington's letter damaged the officers' reputations, the suits allege. Each officer is seeking damages of more than $50,000.

Acting city attorney Gerald Hendrickson said the city will defend Harrington's actions.

"We think Chief Harrington acted reasonably," Hendrickson said.

Harrington declined to comment, citing the active case. He retired from the department in 2010, served one term as a DFL state senator and was named Metro Transit police chief in August.

Dawson quoted Harrington's letter in a lawsuit he filed earlier this year against McGuire and Wanschura in U.S. District Court. The city settled that suit in June for $45,000 while not admitting any wrongdoing.

In his suit, Dawson alleged that McGuire pushed him violently, and that Wanschura put him in a headlock and punched him in the face. The suit alleged that the officers continued to kick and punch him once he was on the ground.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib