Two top Minnesota Racing Commission officials are under investigation by the state budget office, and the panel's executive director has announced his retirement, plunging the state's chief watchdog agency over horse racing into controversy at a critical juncture.
An attorney for deputy director Mary Manney said Manney was placed on paid leave Sept. 7 but had not been given details of the investigation other than being told she had been insubordinate.
Sheila Engelmeier, Manney's attorney, said her client had been urged by current and former Racing Commission members to file a complaint against Jesse Overton, the commission's chair, over his allegedly disrespectful behavior toward women.
Overton could not be reached to discuss those allegations, but earlier in the day he declined to comment on whether he had asked for the state investigation. He said the topic would not be discussed at the commission's upcoming Thursday meeting.
Although details remained sketchy, Manney and Dr. Lynn Hovda, the commission's chief veterinarian, were placed on leave for what appeared to be separate incidents, and Richard Krueger, the panel's executive director, announced his retirement in what may have been an unrelated move. Manney's attorney said her client had been viewed as the "natural successor" to Krueger.
The agenda for Thursday's meeting indicates that finding Krueger's replacement will be discussed.
The investigations come four months after the Racing Commission approved an industry-changing agreement giving the Mdewakanton Sioux a financial stake in Canterbury Park's horse racing operations. The Racing Commission regulates Minnesota's two racing tracks, Canterbury Park in Shakopee and Running Aces near Forest Lake.
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, who chairs the House State Government Finance Committee that oversees the Racing Commission, said Tuesday that he feared people would "think the worst" and assume the investigations involved illegal activity related to horse racing.
"I have no reason to believe that that's the case," Lanning said.
Overton also defended the commission Tuesday, saying the investigations "are totally out of our hands."
"We have the best-regulated, fairest gaming in the country. We're one of the finest commissions in the country," Overton added, before cutting short a phone interview early in the day and declining to answer further questions.
He didn't return phone messages left later in the day, after Engelmeier's allegations.
Engelmeier said that Manney and Hovda were the two most-senior women on the commission, and that a state investigator had only given her a "vague" summary of Manney's alleged insubordination. "It's now 38 days since [they] threw her out of work and are paying her to be out," said Engelmeier.
"My client previously raised the issue of the chair [Overton] being exceedingly disrespectful to women a number of times and was even encouraged by other female commissioners to make a formal complaint," Engelmeier said.
Meanwhile, Roberta Brackman, an attorney for Hovda, said the commission's chief veterinarian was being investigated for administering medication on July 4 to four horses that arrived at Canterbury Park after a lengthy trip from Texas. Brackman released a two-page statement Tuesday that said the horses were showing signs of heat distress on a day when 100-degree temperatures had caused the track to cancel its races.
After receiving permission from the groom traveling with the horses -- and consulting with Krueger -- Brackman said Hovda administered medication that was "necessary and appropriate to [the horses'] condition.'' The horses survived.
Brackman said the investigation began after the horses' trainer and owner complained. Brackman said Hovda had been told by the commission not to discuss the investigation, but she chose to do so Tuesday to address speculation about its nature.
"The bottom line is that Dr. Hovda did her job and did it well, saving four horses from possible injury or death,'' the statement said. "Her actions are supported by numerous experts in the field.''
There were indications Tuesday that there had been a clash of personalities at the commission.
Dan Erhart, a commission member, said he had not found Manney to be insubordinate and added Tuesday that Hovda's "actions were appropriate" in the July incident involving the horses. He said, however, that the interactions between Overton and his staff had "raised my eyebrows" on occasion. He said that although he did not view Overton's interactions with female staff members "as anti-woman," he said that Overton had his own "personal style."
"I'm not critical of the chair," said Erhart.
"[But] I don't understand this," Erhart added of the investigations, and the lack of information surrounding them. "I have never been [part] of anything like this."
Katharine Tinucci, a spokesperson for Gov. Mark Dayton, who appointed Overton as the Racing Commission's chair, said that the governor had not spoken to Overton about the investigations and that Dayton would not comment.
Krueger could not be reached for comment.
Minnesota Management and Budget Office spokesman John Pollard said the office is conducting two probes involving the commission, but provided few other details. Mark Urista, another Racing Commission member, confirmed Tuesday that Manney and Hovda are being investigated, but added that the nine-member commission had been told "we're not to have any discussion among members" about the investigations.
Added Canterbury Park spokesman Jeff Maday: "This is an MRC investigation, and Canterbury is not involved. And we're not aware of the nature of the investigation."