In one of his last acts as president, Barack Obama commuted the sentence of a high-profile government whistleblower and pardoned another.

Obama’s actions last week marked a change of heart after his administration prosecuted more government whistleblowers than any other. Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning and Gen. James Cartwright had leaked secret documents because they believed the public had the right to know about them.

It’s rare for anyone to get prosecuted for revealing government secrets in Minnesota, but plenty of investigations over the years have sent the message that leakers do so at their own risk.

They risk a misdemeanor if they violate the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, which serves as both the state’s public records and privacy law. Since 2007, eight people have been convicted of violating the law, court records show.

Those convictions include public employees who snooped into databases for their own purposes, such as the court employee in Scott County who looked up a license plate number in 2014 for a prison inmate.

Then there’s the strange case of former Dakota County employee Thomas Berry. In August 2015, he noticed something interesting on an internal report of police incidents in county parks: two Republican lawmakers cited for “making out” in a parked car. Berry e-mailed the report to his personal account so he could share it with his wife, he later told investigators.

When the make-out story hit the news, Dakota County officials ordered an investigation. Berry denied sharing it with the media. Even though virtually all of the information in the internal report would soon be public data, the Ramsey County sheriff’s deputies investigating the case told Berry that the release of the lawmakers’ dates of birth was the primary concern, according to an audio recording of their interview obtained by a data practices request.

Dates of birth for many lawmakers past and present are posted on the Legislature’s website.

Nevertheless, Berry resigned from the county, pleaded guilty in February 2016 to violating the act and received a year of probation and a $345 fine.

Sometimes the zeal to plug up leaks can get ahead of the law. When the Stillwater Gazette last January published a supposedly secret report on the dysfunction in Lake Elmo’s city government, some leaders wanted someone punished.

The city asked the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to investigate how the report by attorney Jessica Schwie, which the Gazette said cost $11,289.09, got into the hands of the newspaper.

The investigators consulted with Richard Hodsdon, an assistant county attorney who handles data practices questions. Hodsdon took a look at the report and put a rapid end to the investigation.

“[I]t is my opinion this allegedly leaked document is public data,” Hodsdon wrote in a Jan. 22, 2016, letter to the deputy. “Were you to submit an investigation to me for prosecution consideration I would decline prosecution on the grounds that even if data was ‘leaked’ the data that was revealed is classified as public.”

The report concludes, “The dysfunctional communications and operations of the Elected Officials of the City have led to extreme levels of stress and anxiety which has in turn engendered abnormal relationships amongst City staff and a dysfunctional communication system.”

Among the recommendations: Lake Elmo council members should watch webcasts of their own meetings with a child present, and then talk about it. Sensitive stuff, indeed.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.