In what an official for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is blaming on a state clerical error, a candidate to head Minnesota's Republican Party was arrested this week outside baggage claim, then fingerprinted and photographed -- for expired vehicle tabs.
Brandon Sawalich, an executive with Starkey Hearing Technologies who a day later withdrew from the party race, said that airport police wanted to handcuff him Thursday afternoon on the gross-misdemeanor allegation but said they would reconsider "if I would cooperate."
"I was stunned," said Sawalich, 36, who said his arrest came as he was being met by a Starkey assistant in his four-wheel-drive pickup truck, which he had just taken out of storage only to have police tow it to an impound lot.
On Friday, Sawalich dropped out of the race to head Minnesota Republicans, saying in an e-mail to activists that the party "cannot afford distractions for the uphill battle our party has in store."
Recounting his arrest, Sawalich said that "police were there [at one of the doors outside Terminal 1 baggage claim] waiting for me with one of my assistants" upon his return from a business trip to Portland, Ore. "They read me my rights. I apologized [for the expired tabs] and took full responsibility."
On Friday morning, airport police at first declined to explain why this offense, "intent to escape tax," warranted booking Sawalich. By midday, the chief spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) said that Sawalich should not have been accused of a gross misdemeanor, blaming the mixup on a clerical error by the state's Driver and Vehicle Services.
"We do not believe he had any such intent," said MAC spokesman Patrick Hogan. "Mr. Sawalich will receive a citation for failure to have current registration for his vehicle, which is a petty misdemeanor."
Hogan said that police were working on inaccurate information from the state that the pickup's tabs had been expired since June 2010, leading to a suspicion of intent.
They later determined that the tabs expired in June 2011, which reflects "a simple oversight" by Sawalich, Hogan said.
Sawalich, who had been competing with former state Rep. Mike Osskopp to succeed Tony Sutton as head of the Minnesota's Republican Party, said he was unaware of any curbside commotion his arrest may have caused. "I was not noticing, because I was in disbelief," he said.
Hogan said that airport officials will call Sawalich to explain the mixup, but that police have no need to apologize. "The officers acted in good faith," Hogan said.
The pickup was first noticed as having expired tabs as it circled near the terminal, according to airport police arrest records.
During his arrest, Sawalich had his wife scramble to a Driver and Vehicle Services office, where she brought the pickup's registration up to date.
Sawalich said the matter was cleared up within an hour, and he was released on his own recognizance. But it cost him $138 to get his vehicle out of an impound lot in Eagan and another $60 or so to pay for a cab ride to his Eden Prairie home.
Also Friday, the Associated Press reported that in 2003, Sawalich and a subordinate settled a civil case claiming sexual harassment. Court records from the case, filed in 2001, show that Sawalich denied a woman's claims that he made inappropriate comments and offered career advancement in exchange for sex. The terms of the settlement have not been released.
Sawalich did not return Associated Press and Star Tribune calls made later Friday seeking comment on his exit from the contest for Republican leadership.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482