The top official at one of Minnesota’s largest prisons sent sexually graphic e-mails from his official account, made inappropriate comments about a female intern and verbally abused employees, according to an internal Department of Corrections (DOC) investigation.
Steve Hammer, the warden at Stillwater prison, was fired in October for violating several departmental policies. Prison officials wouldn’t comment on specifics at the time, but a cache of documents obtained by the Star Tribune through a public data request — including e-mails, complaints and interviews with more than a dozen employees — detail the pattern of improper behavior and abuse that led to Hammer’s dismissal.
DOC placed Hammer on investigative leave in late August, and officially terminated him in October. He could not be reached for comment. Veteran DOC employee Eddie Miles has taken over as Stillwater prison warden.
In one April 2014 e-mail exchange with a female former employee, Hammer discussed his transfer from the prison in Rush City to Stillwater, where he was moved after prison officials there discovered he was having an inappropriate relationship with an employee. Hammer wrote of Stillwater prison, “I’m not happy I hate that place.” The ex-employee said she would be an “awesome secretary,” and Hammer replied, “Hmmm secretary? I’m thinking Naughty thoughts.”
He wrote several more explicit e-mails around this time to non-employees using his official account, according to the investigation. He also received a nude photo of a woman which he did not report.
In one e-mail exchange, Hammer wrote, “Mine misses you.” When the woman asked to what he was referring, he replied, “Head Heart Body Penis Not Necessarily in that order Have you been photogenic lately?”
He made other remarks in the same e-mail thread, including, “R u naked” and “Face time naked?” At one point, the woman said, “No naughty pics,” and Hammer responded, “Too bad there hot.”
In another e-mail, he suggested, “Friendship and naked pics is a good start.” When the recipient replied that naked photos would overstep the bounds of friendship, he wrote, “You miss me But got no love.”
Hammer also made several lewd comments to and regarding employees, according to the investigation.
Several interviewees recalled Hammer’s inappropriate behavior toward a female intern.
Once, they said, he stood by her desk, stared at her and asked a co-worker if he thought she was good-looking. The intern found the incident “creepy,” but did not know how to address the situation because Hammer was her boss, witnesses said.
Hammer denied the incident with the intern to DOC investigators, but admitted the e-mails would be in violation of policy and could cause considerable embarrassment to the department.
Abusive behavior, false records
In addition to the explicit comments and e-mails, the investigation also found examples of Hammer intimidating or abusing employees, the records show.
In one case, an employee filed a harassment complaint against Hammer, and during a meeting, Hammer “snapped.” His face turned red, he appeared angry and he screamed at the complainant, “You’re a [expletive] worthless employee, you’re a bully, I’m so sick of this [expletive].” He then tore up the complaint, threw it on the floor and said, “This is what I think of your complaint,” according a human resources manager at the meeting.
Hammer denied swearing or tearing up the complaint when asked about the exchange, but acknowledged calling the employee a bully.
Others described incidents of Hammer lashing out, using “veiled threats” and making vulgar or disrespectful comments.
The investigation also substantiated an incident in which Hammer received a request for background information about a former DOC employee who was interviewing for a job with the Minneapolis Police Department. Instead of forwarding the request to human resources, as was protocol, Hammer provided answers himself to 17 questions and told the police department the employee left DOC in good standing. In fact, the employee had been reprimanded for making sexually inappropriate comments.
This wasn’t Hammer’s first time getting in trouble for acting inappropriately toward his employees.
Since starting work for Minnesota prisons in 1991, he’s been disciplined twice for engaging in inappropriate relationships with staff, according to department disciplinary records.
In 2014, when DOC discovered Hammer’s romantic relationship with a prison employee in Rush City, then-Assistant Commissioner John King wrote Hammer a letter of reprimand, noting the relationship might create rumors among other staff, give the perception of preferential treatment and “cause staff to question their confidence, trust and respect for the office of the warden and [Hammer’s] decision-making going forward.”
In 2002, when Hammer worked as acting assistant superintendent at the juvenile facility in Red Wing, an employee accused him of making flirtatious remarks, including inviting her to meet him on his boat at 6:30 a.m. because he “thought that she was lonely,” and sending a “ ‘kidding’ e-mail about watching her on the institution’s cameras, an issue that [Hammer] admitted [he] knew she was highly sensitive about,” according to disciplinary records.
“Your behavior with regard to [the employee], regardless of how you intended it, was inappropriate,” reads the disciplinary letter. “You have been to [a] variety of training sessions and involved in numerous discussions of the sexual harassment policy and the need to make sure that sexual harassment of employees is not tolerated. While you may have believed your conduct to be amusing, clever, witty or simply ‘friendly,’ the impact was far different.” In this case, the employee resigned and Hammer was suspended for one day.