Former state employee John Hunt entered an Alford plea Tuesday to charges of breaching thousands of driver's license files while he worked for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

During a plea settlement hearing in Ramsey County District Court, Hunt admitted that there was sufficient evidence for him to be found guilty of charges that he made about 19,000 queries of protected data, mostly of women, many of whom were prominent figures such as politicians, police officers and news reporters. Hunt, who served as administrative manager of the DNR's enforcement division, made the queries over nearly five years from the Driver and Vehicle Services database.

Alford pleas allow defendants to maintain innocence while acknowledging that enough evidence exists for them to be convicted.

Hunt entered an Alford plea to counts of misconduct of a public employee, unauthorized computer access and unlawful use of private data. He had been charged with eight counts of misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors.

Judge Leonardo Castro said he would defer accepting the plea until Hunt's sentencing on March 24.

Prosecutor and Assistant Duluth City Attorney Cary Schmies said that Hunt accessed the files more than 2,564 times, but that it was "not for any authorized purpose."

Local prosecutors forwarded the case to the Duluth city attorney's office because so many local officials were listed as breach victims.

Hunt was charged last year after the DNR sent thousands of letters to victims. The agency fired Hunt in January 2013.

According to charges, he kept an encrypted file on his computer labeled "Mug Shot" that contained 172 driver's license photographs of women. Investigators also found another 26 license photos of women on his computer.

Hunt was supposed to be among those DNR staff members in charge of open-records requests and data training.

His former supervisor said Hunt's job wouldn't have required him to make more than 500 queries of the Driver and Vehicle Services database a year, mostly for background checks on job applicants.

The database is protected from misuse by state and federal law.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495

Twitter: @stribnorfleet