Months after his blocked promotion exposed a bitter rift between Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and then-Police Chief Janeé Harteau, Lt. John Delmonico is suing Hodges and the city for defamation of character.
In the lawsuit filed this week in Hennepin County District Court, Delmonico accused Hodges of portraying him as “untrustworthy” and a “racist” in a text message exchange with Harteau after the chief announced him as her pick in April to take over as Fourth Precinct inspector. Hodges later overruled Harteau and chided the chief for not giving her more notice of the controversial appointment.
Delmonico was head of the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union representing the city’s rank-and-file officers, from 1999 to 2015. He currently supervises the night shift at the Fourth Precinct, and has served as acting inspector while current inspector Aaron Biard was on vacation.
Hodges has stood by her decision in the months since.
On Friday, she reiterated her position that, while Delmonico is qualified, his appointment would further erode the community’s trust in the department.
“I will continue to make tough decisions in order to do what is right to build public safety and community trust for all our residents,” she said in a statement. “I will not be stopped either by the police union or by a patently baseless lawsuit that is obviously intended to influence the election.”
When reached by phone on Friday, Delmonico declined to comment, and messages left for his attorney weren’t immediately returned.
Delmonico alleges Hodges damaged his reputation in a series of text messages referenced in the lawsuit, writing in one that, “We can’t trust John,” and stating in another, “they also remember lots of racist stuff he has done.” The lawsuit argues that because the messages were exchanged on city-issued cellphones and made public to the news media, they are not privileged.
Delmonico also contends that the statements were retaliatory for “among other things, prior disputes over union pension benefits … and over a dispute that became known as ‘Pointergate.’ ” That reference was to a 2014 episode in which Delmonico criticized Hodges over a photo of her and a young canvasser gesturing at each other; Delmonico and others alleged that instead of pointing, the pair were flashing a sign associated with a North Side street gang.
The incident went viral online after Delmonico “questioned the wisdom” of the mayor’s decision in a TV news interview. It also reignited a long-running feud between the two that some say dates to Hodges’ days on the City Council, when the pair clashed over union pension benefits.
Delmonico’s appointment in April prompted outrage and scorn on social media, where several people pointed to his role in Pointergate as proof that he was unfit to run one of the city’s most diverse precincts.
But Delmonico’s backers argue that as union president he fought to diversify the department at a time when black officers were regularly passed over for promotions and harassed.
The lawsuit, which asks for damages in excess of $50,000, says Delmonico “has suffered damage to his career, reputation, shame, embarrassment, mortification and mental anguish.”
Delmonico is represented by attorneys Kyle Hart and Fred Bruno.
Jane Kirtley, who teaches media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said that as a public official Delmonico faces an uphill legal battle in proving defamation. Delmonico’s lawsuit maintains that he is “a private Minnesota resident, not a public figure.”
It’s likely, Kirtley said, that Hodges’ comments are covered by New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that set a stiffer standard for proving libel against public officials.
“He would have to prove that whatever Mayor Hodges said was based on actual malice,” Kirtley said. “If her factual basis is verifiable and she makes her own comments, that is opinion, and that is protected.”
Current union President Lt. Bob Kroll said the suit underscores Hodges’ “micromanagement” of the department.
“Why does a mayor that has nearly 4,200 employees in the city have such a concern for a bureau head?” he said, adding that Hodges’ decision invited speculation that she blocked Delmonico’s appointment to curry political favor.
Harteau resigned in July following the fatal police shooting of Justine Damond. Earlier this month, Hodges said in an interview that “the culminating event” in her rift with the chief was the Delmonico controversy.
After news of the lawsuit broke, Harteau tweeted, “Not surprised!”
In a later interview, Harteau said that at the time Delmonico was a “logical choice,” given his experience and the relationships he’d formed on the North Side. She said she suspected that Hodges’ decision was motivated at least partly by vindictiveness toward the former union chief. She pointed out that Delmonico still works supervisory roles at the Fourth Precinct.
“I absolutely think that it was personal,” Harteau said. “I had frankly forgotten about the whole Pointergate thing when I was making my decision.”
“I think the things that she said about Delmonico, not only on the text messages but in other meetings and public forums — about his leadership abilities and relationship with the community — were not only defaming, but inaccurate,” Harteau said.