Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman will collect his $182,025 salary and face no deadline for returning to work from his medical leave, the reasons for which remained unclear Monday.
Freeman has said that he needed time away from the “high stress” of running the office.
He did not give a timeline for his return but will be paid without interruption. As an elected official, he has unlimited sick leave and vacation time.
David Brown, chief deputy of the criminal division and one of two deputies in the county attorney’s office who will run things in Freeman’s absence, said the law allows Freeman to take his time.
Being out on leave “for whatever period of time does not trigger” removal from office, Brown said in an interview Monday.
He declined to speculate on how long Freeman may be gone. “I’m sure he will be following the recommendations of his medical professionals and we’ll take that as it comes,” Brown said.
Brown was more forthcoming in a memo to county law enforcement officers, saying Freeman would be out for “several weeks.”
The abrupt announcement of his leave puzzled legal and law enforcement professionals who have known him for years.
The timing of the news also raised questions. When Freeman, 71, announced his medical leave Friday, he said he had conferred with his doctor on Wednesday.
On Thursday night, Freeman reportedly behaved bizarrely at an event in north Minneapolis. He reportedly bragged about his willingness to charge police officers with crimes, and joked about the recent murder trial and conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor — at one point even smacking a police car with his hand, the same kind of action that allegedly startled Noor before he shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, an unarmed civilian.
Three sources who were at the event told the Star Tribune that Freeman’s behavior suggested he may have been under the influence of alcohol.
It was the second time Freeman had made ill-advised comments about Noor in semipublic settings.
Speaking to a group of activists at a December 2017 event, Freeman was recorded saying that a charging decision in the Noor case would be “the big present I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.”
At that event, he also criticized the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for its handling of the investigation, a theme repeated throughout Noor’s trial.
Asked Monday if Freeman was on leave for either his behavior at work or for treatment of alcohol abuse, Brown said, “I can’t talk about any of that.” Freeman didn’t return voice, text or e-mail messages left Monday.
Brown, who has been in charge of the criminal division for seven years, along with Lolita Ulloa, who has managed the civil division for three years, will run the office along with the management team, he said.
In February 2016, Freeman fell on the ice and blew out his knee, just weeks before he announced a decision not to charge police in the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark. During that stretch, Freeman worked from home and there were “very few days” when he was out of contact with the office, Brown said.
Asked whether he would be in touch with Freeman during this leave, Brown said he didn’t feel “comfortable” talking about it. When asked if he was surprised by Freeman’s leave, Brown said, “That I just can’t comment on.”
If the office were to become vacant, which no one at this point is expecting, the County Board would appoint an interim successor. Brown said that he hadn’t urged Freeman to resign and in fact didn’t discuss that at all. He shrugged at the notion that Freeman had an obligation to share his health issues with voters. “I can’t imagine anything more personal than your health issues,” he said.
Freeman, who turned 71 last Tuesday, has served more than 20 years as Hennepin County attorney. He was first elected in 1990 and served two four-year terms before stepping down to run for governor in 1998. He reclaimed the office in 2006 after his successor, Amy Klobuchar, left to run for the U.S. Senate.
Freeman, a longtime DFLer whose father served as a DFL governor, lost the party endorsement to his challenger last year but was still re-elected. He has not indicated whether he will seek re-election in 2022.
In his only statement on the matter, Freeman last week wrote that he expects to “return stronger and sharper and able to guide this office in its mission to protect the public safety and provide justice.”