Two Minneapolis city employees, including the chief of housing inspections, are facing criminal charges of misconduct because authorities say they misused a state database full of private information.

Director of housing inspections Tom Deegan, a city employee for 37 years, and housing inspector Michael Karney have been put on administrative leave after being charged Friday with gross misdemeanors of public employee misconduct. Audits revealed Deegan and Karney had repeatedly accessed driver's license and motor vehicle data without an official business purpose, according to criminal complaints.

But a lawyer for Deegan said his client was merely checking the records for "aged and vulnerable" family members. Other city employees conducted searches using Deegan's password, said Paul Engh, Deegan's attorney.

"Mr. Deegan categorically denies doing anything wrong," Engh said. "Over 40 city employees have done the same thing and have not been charged."

Engh added that Deegan, who declined to comment, will plead not guilty at his first court appearance on Oct. 11. Karney was not at home on Tuesday afternoon and did not return a message.

The Driver and Vehicle Services database contains personal information including photographs, driving records, addresses and physical descriptions. Last year, a Minneapolis police sergeant faced the same misdemeanor charge for his use of the database, but the charge was later dismissed.

The charges come at a tumultuous time for the Department of Regulatory Services, one of Minneapolis' most powerful agencies. The department's director, Gregory Stubbs, resigned abruptly last month after less than a year on the job. The mayor later proposed moving several of the department's core services elsewhere in city government.

After coming to work for the city in 1975, Deegan rose through the ranks of the Minneapolis Fire Department, eventually becoming deputy chief. Since then, he has held a variety of roles, including fire marshal and manager of the problem properties unit. As director of housing inspections, Deegan supervised about 70 people. The 60-year-old St. Anthony resident has developed a reputation as a calm but tough enforcer of city housing codes who is a public voice in the city's battle with some of its worst landlords.

Karney, 55, joined the city in 1989.

Laura Pietan, St. Paul deputy city attorney, said her office had been asked to review the accusations by the Minneapolis city attorney's office to avoid a conflict of interest. She said that her office reviewed the investigative information and determined that charges should be filed.

Deegan and Karney each face a single gross misdemeanor count, which carries up to one year incarceration in the Hennepin County Workhouse and up to a $3,000 fine, she said.

The complaint, filed Friday, did not specify why Deegan and Karney accessed the database. It says both accessed it over the past three years, though Deegan's alleged misconduct dates back to 2005.

The access issue may have been more widespread in the department. Engh said Deegan gave his password to the web-based system to other employees, which was "standard protocol." Because of this, Engh said Deegan did not know many of the names that police claimed were accessed when they questioned him in April. The criminal complaint says the Minneapolis police internal affairs probe resulted from alleged misuse "by Minneapolis Regulatory Services employees."

"The city of Minneapolis encouraged and permitted what has been charged," Engh said. He said the case will become "a Pandora's box in Minneapolis" because "accessing data was endemic for the city."

City spokesman Matt Lindstrom, responding to Engh's comment, cited a city policy that states "users are responsible for protecting city passwords against unauthorized use. Users shall not share city passwords."

Mayor R.T. Rybak said in a statement that while he could not comment on the details, "using personal data appropriately is a sacred trust of city employees, and if that trust is violated, we will take tough action."

The city coordinator, Paul Aasen, said the charges contain "serious allegations" and it is the city's responsibility to "hold people accountable" if they act unethically or unprofessionally.

"As an employer, the last thing you ever want to hear is that someone on your staff may have done something inappropriate or illegal," Aasen said in a statement. "These charges will work their way through the court system, and at the same time, we will be evaluating the city's next steps."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper