Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s abrupt, unexpected decision to take a leave of absence last week left too many questions about the status of one of the state’s most powerful prosecutors.
On May 10, Freeman released a brief statement saying he needed time away from the “high stress” of running the office. He said he would be out for an indefinite period after consulting with his doctor and that he expected to “return stronger and sharper and able to guide this office in its mission to protect the public safety and provide justice.”
The indefinite nature of the leave is especially troubling, and Freeman should provide some clarity. After the statement was issued, David Brown, one of the deputy county attorneys who is filling in for Freeman, wrote in an e-mail to law enforcement that he expected his boss to be away for “several weeks.”
Brown, chief deputy of the criminal division, said in an interview with the Star Tribune that the law allows Freeman unlimited sick leave and vacation. Brown told a reporter that he couldn’t respond to more specific questions, including whether he would be in touch with Freeman during the leave.
The surprise announcement came just a few days after the county attorney’s office won a high-profile conviction in the Mohamed Noor case. And it occurred less than 24 hours after Freeman reportedly behaved “erratically” at a public meeting in north Minneapolis. According to witnesses, he bragged about his willingness to charge police officers and joked about the Noor case. Three sources who were at the meeting told Star Tribune reporters that Freeman may have been under the influence of alcohol.
Even elected officials such as county attorneys, who make decisions that can forever change lives, deserve some level of privacy, especially when it comes to sensitive health issues. But they are ultimately judged by the voters, who deserve more than, “I’m leaving, and I don’t know when I’ll be back.” We raised similar concerns when former Gov. Mark Dayton was hospitalized longer than expected at Mayo Clinic in 2018.
Freeman, 71, has served as county attorney for more than 20 years. He was elected to his sixth term last November and was endorsed by the Star Tribune Editorial Board. He has been outspoken about transparency and accountability. In police-involved shootings, he has opted to bypass grand jury deliberations and make charging decisions himself. His justification was that grand jury proceedings are secret and that he could be more transparent and accountable to the public if he took responsibility for those calls.
He should also be more forthcoming about his return to work and not leave Hennepin County residents in the dark.