A federal grand jury in Minnesota has been investigating a former U.S. probation officer in a case involving repeated allegations of sexual improprieties with women he supervised, the Star Tribune has learned.
Dennis Bresnahan, 54, is also at the center of a lawsuit filed against the federal government by three women who each describe a pattern of alleged unwanted advances while he served as their probation officer, including one who says Bresnahan pressured her into oral sex.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Minnesota last month, could add new life to an ongoing FBI probe into whether Bresnahan committed federal civil rights violations against his probationers or abused his power as a law enforcement official.
One of the women said she was interviewed by a grand jury in Minneapolis earlier this year and has also talked to FBI agents looking into the allegations. Grand jury proceedings are secret, and federal prosecutors would not confirm details of the probe.
The case is being watched closely in the Minnesota legal community because, as a longtime federal probation officer, Bresnahan helped manage an annual caseload that can reach more than 1,000 probationers in a given year.
“If it’s true, it’s really pathetic and it is harmful to the federal criminal justice system in Minnesota,” said Thomas Heffelfinger, a Minneapolis lawyer who twice served as U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
Bresnahan did not respond to messages seeking comment. Last month, when reached by phone, he declined to comment on the original civil complaint.
‘Done a lot of damage’
Bresnahan worked for the U.S. probation office in Minnesota for 25 years before resigning while under suspension late last year, according to the office.
Speaking recently at their attorney’s office in Minneapolis, the three women described a pattern of demands for nude photos, invitations to participate in sex acts, lurid comments about female family members and, in one case, forced oral sex during a routine probation home visit.
“He’s done a lot of damage to us,” said Tammy Bloomer of Duluth, who joined the two other women in the lawsuit.
Bloomer, 53, had served 18 months in a West Virginia prison for a 2006 conviction from a methamphetamine trafficking conspiracy. Ayesha McKinney, 29, of Fridley, pleaded guilty in 2014 for her role in a bank fraud conspiracy. And Tracina Ross, 29, of Maple Grove, was caught selling cocaine in North Dakota in 2012.
As their probation officer, Bresnahan had full access to intimate details about the women’s mental health and family histories. He would have known that Ross and McKinney suffered from mental health problems and that Bloomer was waging a battle with alcoholism.
After serving their sentences far from home, all three said they were eager to rejoin their families’ lives.
Early warning signs
All three said they saw red flags almost immediately: McKinney said Bresnahan stared at her breasts when they first met. Ross said he remarked that she looked nice in her file photo. Bloomer, who struggled to pronounce his last name, said he told her to sound out Dennis “Breast-in-Hand.”
Ross said Bresnahan touched her leg during a home visit and asked her to join him in a “threesome” sex act — a proposition all three women allege they heard.
“I wasn’t going to say nothing because my life was in his hands,” Ross said. “My main thing was staying with my kids because they went through a lot when I was in jail.”
Bloomer described a day in 2012 when, she says, Bresnahan persuaded her to perform oral sex during a home probation inspection. She said he called ahead of time and said he wanted her to be naked by the time he arrived. She said that a few years later, when she had completed probation, her son also had Bresnahan as a probation officer. According to Bloomer, Bresnahan continued to call her, almost always propositioning her over the phone.
Eventually, Bloomer said, she reported her allegations to another probation officer, who contacted the FBI.
Agents have since interviewed her, Bloomer said. Bloomer said she also spoke to a federal grand jury in March, but the status of that investigation is unclear.
McKinney said that when she was released from a halfway house to await sentencing in her case, Bresnahan made sexually explicit remarks during phone calls, asked her to send him nude photos and even demanded that she meet him at a St. Paul hotel room — an invitation she refused.
Kenneth Udoibok, the Minneapolis attorney who represented McKinney in her fraud case and now represents the three women in their civil suit, said he believes the case might not have gotten this far had he not first met McKinney’s accusations with disbelief.
At the time, Udoibok found himself choosing between the word of a client fresh off a fraud conviction and a federal system in which he had encountered no wrongdoing during his two decades as a defense attorney.
McKinney made that choice for him.
After acquiring a smartphone app to record phone calls, McKinney captured two conversations with Bresnahan in 2015.
The brief, four-minute calls centered almost exclusively on Bresnahan’s requests for nude and sexually explicit photos and even photographs of her mother. In one, before hanging up, Bresnahan can be heard telling McKinney to say hello to her kids for him.
A copy of the recordings has been sent to federal authorities.
Because Bresnahan worked for an agency that reports to the U.S. District Court in Minnesota, Chief Judge John Tunheim disqualified all Minnesota federal judges from hearing the civil case, and an Iowa judge has been appointed. The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, and both the office and the FBI declined to comment on any criminal investigations.
Heffelfinger, who is not part of the litigation, said the U.S. attorney’s office may also need to determine whether to recuse itself from any criminal prosecution because of the volume of past contacts with a former officer.
Lawsuit seeks $3 million
It would not be uncommon for an officer like Bresnahan to have a caseload of 100 or more probationers whose cases were brought by Minnesota prosecutors, Heffelfinger said.
The government has 60 days to respond to the civil suit. Heffelfinger said he expects the government will file a motion seeking to stay proceedings in the lawsuit until any criminal investigation is resolved.
The lawsuit seeks $3 million for alleged injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder, fear and anxiety as a result of the alleged abuse.
“The fear of getting pulled from your family again — you can’t explain the emotions, your state of mind,” Bloomer said. “It’s just constant fear: When is the phone going to ring? When is he going to be at my door again?”