Hearing in case against former DNR employee ended abruptly when judge recused self because his wife is among alleged victims.
One of the earliest challenges in the criminal case against a man accused of snooping into thousands of driver’s license records has been finding legal officials left unscathed by the breach.
A hearing on the matter ended before it began in a St. Paul courtroom Wednesday when a judge recused himself because his wife was among those whose records were allegedly accessed by John Hunt, a former employee at the Department of Natural Resources who the agency said made more than 19,000 queries over about four years. Local prosecutors were already forced to forward the case to the Duluth city attorney’s office because so many local officials, including the St. Paul city attorney herself, were listed as breach victims.
An investigation last year found that more than 90 percent of Hunt’s queries were about women. It said his lookups included judges, “others in the criminal justice field,” public employees, politicians, journalists, local celebrities and professional athletes. Hunt was a manager at the DNR whose duties included overseeing training on how to handle private information before he was terminated in January.
He faces a number of misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor charges, including unauthorized use of the database, misconduct of a public employee, unauthorized computer access and criminal use of encryption — the charges said he kept 172 of the driver’s license images on an encrypted file on his computer.
An audit in February found common misuse of the state’s Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) database, which contains photographs, addresses and driving records on nearly every licensed Minnesotan. But the Hunt case was so massive, and touched so many public figures, that it spawned legislation to increase transparency around data breaches and a massive class-action lawsuit winding through the courts.
“My spouse is a potential witness in this case,” Ramsey County District Judge Gregg Johnson said in recusing himself Wednesday, after a huddle with the attorneys in the case. Johnson is married to Susan Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council, according to Haigh’s online biography. Haigh confirmed Wednesday that she received one of the data-breach letters.
Hunt’s attorney, Fred Bruno, said after the hearing that Johnson’s wife was among the names on a list of people allegedly looked up.
Bruno has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing, among other things, that it does not show the lookups were without a legitimate purpose. He declined to comment further on the charges Wednesday.
Hunt, who wore a sport coat and stood silently during Wednesday’s hearing, is also a defendant in six lawsuits filed by several of the 5,000 people who received data breach letters. Five of them are seeking class-action status and have been consolidated.
There is no evidence that Hunt sold or disclosed the data, but DVS information is protected by state and federal law against unauthorized use.