Widely considered one of the toughest politicians in the state, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher is going through possibly his most difficult six-month stretch in office.

Last October an inmate died in his jail. Last month his county board shelled out $750,000 to settle a lawsuit brought against him by two disgruntled employees who complained Fletcher retaliated after they opposed his reelection in 2002. Last week two of his top aides -- including the best man at his wedding-- were indicted on federal charges.

Now people inside and outside Ramsey County are wondering if Fletcher will be tainted by the political and legal fallout from the indictments of those two -- Mark Naylon and Tim Rehak -- on charges of theft, fraud and conspiracy.

Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, a Fletcher supporter, said the indictments were "disappointing for all of us."

But, he said, they shouldn't be a reflection on the sheriff. "You try to hire the best. And I'm confident that Bob tries to hire the best. There are choices made by individuals that don't always live up to those expectations ... and are out of your control," McDonough said.

But others said that the buck has to stop with Fletcher.

"Clearly he has to take some responsibility," Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said last week. "You look at the charges and you read through the indictments and you realize it's very serious, involving high-level people in the [sheriff's] office."

Another commissioner, former U.S. Marshal Tony Bennett, who ran against Fletcher in 1994, said that because Naylon, the department's public information officer and best man at Fletcher's wedding, and Rehak, an inspector and long-time Fletcher associate, are top-level employees, the sheriff should have known about potential problems involving them.

Others have questioned why Fletcher allowed Naylon to participate in searches, carry a gun and a badge and drive a department car with squad lights even though he is not a sworn officer.

"It's common knowledge that you don't act like a police officer when you're not a police officer,'' Bennett said of Naylon's conduct in the search that ultimately led to the federal indictment. "He could have gone there as an observer. He needed to keep his hands in his pockets and not touch anything."

Missing money

The indictment contends that Naylon and Rehak stole $6,000 of $13,500 planted by the FBI in a hotel room in November 2004. The men turned in the money the next day after getting suspicious it could be an FBI setup, according to the indictment.

On Friday, Fletcher, who had defended both men after the allegations first surfaced more than a year ago, declined to be interviewed and issued a statement through a spokeswoman. "It would be inappropriate to comment on a pending trial," he said.

Naylon and Rehak, who are on administrative leave and entered not guilty pleas in federal court Thursday, steadfastly maintain their innocence.

"The evidence is going to overwhelmingly show that it was a practical joke," said Kevin Short, Rehak's attorney.

What's next?

The two men are expected to go on trial on May 12. In the meantime, the indictments might serve to deter other public officials tempted to take money, said former U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones.

"By planting the seed in people's mind that if they are presented with opportunities, maybe these opportunities are contrived or controlled and maybe it's law enforcement behind it," Jones said.

However, past and present law enforcement officials said they don't believe that the FBI would spend years investigating a case if it did not believe there would be a large payoff. It's also unknown whether FBI investigators are leaning on Naylon and Rehak in search of other possible suspects.

Jones, while not addressing the particulars of the case against Naylon and Rehak, said it is a common practice for FBI investigators to squeeze one person to get to another.

"When you're dealing with investigating public corruption, you try to work it as deep and hard as you can," Jones said. "You get into an individual you believe might lead to other information. ... Whether it goes all the way up to the sheriff, I have no idea."

Both Paul Rogosheske, Rehak's lawyer, and Short said they believe there is no indication that the indictments have anything to do with Fletcher, who is in his fourth term as sheriff.

"There is absolutely no connection there," Rogosheske said.

The indictment makes no mention of possible wrongdoing by Fletcher and notes that the FBI targeted the two men in part because the agency received a lot of complaints about Naylon interfering in criminal investigations despite his being a civilian.

In July 2003, however, Rich Stanek, then commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, forwarded a public corruption allegation against Fletcher to the FBI.

A bar owner had told state gambling investigators following a raid that almost all the proceeds from the illegal gambling operation were going to Fletcher's reelection campaign.

"I was briefed on the case," Stanek, now the Hennepin County sheriff, said last week. "When I heard about the allegations -- and that's all they were at the time -- they seemed substantial."

Although the bar owner recanted after Fletcher sent investigators to question him, Stanek said "we placed enough weight on it to turn it over to the FBI."

Stanek said he did not know what the FBI did with the information, but "once they [the FBI] take something on they follow through," he said.

The FBI declined to comment last week on whether there is or was an investigation of Fletcher himself. But people familiar with the allegations sent to the FBI said agents were pursuing their inquiries into Fletcher in late 2006, at the same time the FBI also was investigating Naylon and Rehak.

On Friday, Fletcher did not directly respond to questions about whether he is or had been the target of an FBI probe.

Regardless, few who know the feisty Fletcher well expect he will fold under the pressure that is cropping up around the indictments and the other incidents.

"Certainly the story looks bad," said Larry Cohen, former Ramsey County chief judge. "I would think he's not feeling too happy about it ... [but] I think that Bob Fletcher is a cat with all kinds of lives."

hme@startribune • 612-673-4280 mlsmith@startribune.com 612-673-4788 cbrown@startribune • 612-673-4767