ALBERT LEA, Minn. – A 56-year-old wine bar owner who opposed Gov. Tim Walz's COVID-19 restrictions on bars and restaurants and waged a fierce public fight to confront authorities, now appears to be running from them.
Lisa Hanson hasn't paid a $9,000 fine after being found in contempt of court in a civil case pursued by Attorney General Keith Ellison for flouting COVID restrictions at her popular downtown wine and coffee bar.
She failed to turn up for a bail hearing in a criminal case brought by City Attorney Kelly Martinez, who has charged Hanson with nine misdemeanor counts.
A warrant has been issued for Hanson's arrest. But her whereabouts as of Friday remained unknown.
"I do not intend to submit myself to arrest on account of a fraudulent warrant," Hanson wrote the court last month.
The case has triggered a legal confrontation between Martinez and Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag, whom the city attorney accuses of violating his duty to serve Hanson with the warrant — an accusation Freitag denies.
The controversy surrounding Hanson and her Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro has upended the tranquillity in this southern Minnesota city of about 17,400.
Most residents interviewed last week in Albert Lea were aware of Hanson's combative stance toward authorities and their efforts to force compliance with Walz's COVID orders. But they were split over whether she was right.
"I don't think she should be fined at all," said Gene Matson, 82, a retired truck driver. "This is America, but you wouldn't think so the way our governor has reacted."
"She broke the law, she broke the governor's rules, she's endangering everyone's life," said Cindy Ravenmoon, 50, a self-employed writer.
Conservatives have cheered Hanson's resistance, praising her courage online. Others have been critical, including some who staged a small counter protest when more than 100 of her supporters marched in town this winter.
Hanson, who did not return phone calls for this story, has publicly acknowledged violating Walz's Nov. 20 orders intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota. She announced in December on social media that the Interchange was "open to indoor dining … in defiance of the governor's illegal shutdown."
According to an affidavit by Carla Cincotta, a peace officer with the state Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division, Hanson kept her business open for six days in December and January, leading to six criminal counts.
When the state allowed bars to partly reopen later in January, Hanson announced on Facebook a "Nail it to the Walz" reopen party. Cincotta again investigated and determined she had exceeded 50% of indoor capacity, failed to maintain social distancing and operated later than 10 p.m. The result was three more misdemeanor charges against Hanson for violating the governor's emergency powers order and endangering public safety.
After Hanson failed to turn up for a bail hearing last month in Freeborn County District Court on the charges, the judge issued a warrant for her arrest. But when a deputy brought it to her house, she said that Freitag had told her he wouldn't execute the warrant. The deputy called Freitag from his squad car, who confirmed what Hanson said.
That led to a fractious court hearing where Martinez asked Steele County District Judge Joseph Bueltel to hold Freitag in contempt of court. The judge told Martinez to correct a factual error in a court document and instructed Freitag to arrest Hanson.
"I tend to side with all the businesses that are affected by the governor's executive order," Freitag said in a recent interview. "I think the governor's order is overreaching, but it is a lawful executive order."
The sheriff also vehemently denied any wrongdoing. "We always honor and respect orders from the court," he said.
Freitag, who says he has discretion in serving warrants, told the judge in an e-mail that Martinez had "a personal ax to grind" against Hanson. He said that Hanson was "an upstanding person in the community," a business owner with her husband who had lived in Albert Lea for decades.
'Gave me her word'
The sheriff said Hanson told him after the warrant was issued that she was unaware of the court date. He told her to turn herself in, he said, and either post bail or call the court and get a new court date. She told him that she would comply, he said, but she hasn't.
"She gave me her word … and then she backtracked on me," Freitag told the Star Tribune. "She has been hiding ever since. We have tried to arrest her. We haven't seen hide nor hair of her."
Martinez, who declined to be interviewed for this story, blasted Freitag in a letter to the judge. His conduct, she wrote, "casts a negative shadow on the judicial system and implies 'business owners' are 'upstanding persons in the community' and therefore subject to differential treatment in criminal proceedings."
Public confidence in the judiciary, she added, "is shattered if the court permits the unlawful disobedience of its orders."
A divided community
The Interchange remains closed, but as of Friday the message on its answering machine said it was only temporary: "We hope to reopen in the next few to several weeks."
The wine bar and coffee shop occupies the first floor of a three-story downtown building, a relatively small venue decked with signage that advertises lattes, espressos and gluten-free items.
"We fight for our liberties," reads one notice in the window. Another says "Gov. Walz requires face covering to enter. Govern yourself accordingly … You're entering at your own risk as you've always done."
Hanson lives in a 2½-story house surrounded by farmland off a gravel road in Hayward, about 7 miles east of Albert Lea. A woman who answered the door there last week said that Hanson was not at home and declined to say where she was.
"I think she's got a constitutional right to do what she wants," said Jim Munyer, 73, a retired high school teacher and counselor, pausing outside the Walgreens last week. "I think the governor should lighten up."
"I think she's a loudmouth," said Lee Fries, 78, a retired social service administrator. "She's not concerned with the health of the rest of us."
Sam Moline, 26, carrying a box of work shoes he had just purchased for his new shipping and receiving job, said he didn't think people should be forced to wear a mask. He called the charges against Hanson unlawful.
Matt Muschler, 59, said his brother bought his mother a $100 gift certificate to the Interchange because she enjoys their lattes. But he said he hadn't taken her there recently.
"It's not safe," Muschler said. "Why risk getting sick? It's not worth it."
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224