The Duluth Police Department is under fire from a top Republican legislator for withholding the name of a DFL House member while he was being investigated for having oral sex with a 17-year-old boy at an area rest stop.

The chairwoman of the House data practices subcommittee sent a letter to Police Chief Gordon Ramsey this week saying she was "deeply disturbed" the department withheld information for weeks about Rep. Kerry Gauthier of Duluth because of his "high profile."

"This is highly inappropriate and a clear violation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act," wrote Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover. "By restricting access to public data related [to] the incidents involving 'high profile' individuals, the Duluth Police Department has created two sets of rules for handling public data. ... The actions and statements of your department beg for clarification."

Ramsey defended the department's actions and called Scott's inquiry political in nature. The case was "sensitive," he said, and the department -- after consultation with the city attorney -- decided to limit information about the case to a small group of investigators until it was ready to go public.

"We were concerned that if anything leaked out, something could impact the victim statements or, obviously, someone could be harmed by things before the facts come out, which is why you have data privacy in the first place," Ramsey said. "You need to have that need-to-know option for some cases. ... That's one of the problems with this data privacy stuff. It's all open to interpretation."

The dust-up over the release of data has breathed new life into the Gauthier scandal, giving Republicans fresh political ammunition in a city with strong DFL ties.

The state official in charge of data practices disputes the chief's reading of state law.

"One of the basics in Minnesota data practices is that we have a presumption that all data is public, unless it's specifically protected by state or federal law," said Laurie Beyer-Kropuenske, director of community services in the state Department of Administration. "There's no specific rules around people being treated differently" because they're public officials.

In criminal justice, she said, the public always has the right to know about arrests, police calls for service and incident data.

There are a few narrowly focused exceptions to protect victims of sex crimes or the identity of undercover officers. But otherwise, she said, a police call that caught a state representative in a sex act with a teenager should have been treated no differently than any other individual caught in a similar situation.

The St. Louis County attorney decided not to pursue charges against Gauthier because 16 is the age of consent in Minnesota. The boy admitted to police he lied to Gauthier about his age, saying he was 18.

Gauthier nevertheless faced a firestorm of criticism and announced this week that he would not seek re-election.

Ramsey said he would not have taken the same precautions to shield an investigation into an ordinary citizen caught in a similar incident.

"That same person doesn't face the same scrutiny as a legislator," he said. "But the representative, her letter is obviously partisan. You know what I mean? It's politics. ... We saw the train coming down the tracks, we knew we were going to be heavily scrutinized. We're kind of collateral damage."

Once the subcommittee has the information she requested, Scott said members might make recommendations to the department about how to handle future high-profile cases.

Jodi Boyne, spokeswoman for the House Republican caucus, said the Gauthier incident could lead to GOP legislation next session aimed at data practices when public officials are concerned.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049