The first question Clayton Halunen had for a young man who wanted to join his prominent Minneapolis-based law firm was unorthodox: "How do you look in a Speedo?"

The candidate landed an internship with Halunen Law, but he and a male co-worker were forced to endure constant flirtations that ultimately led to unwanted sexual contact, according to disciplinary findings that Halunen admitted to this month.

Halunen went to extraordinary lengths to keep his conduct private. State disciplinary records show that Halunen threatened to pursue criminal charges against both men for extortion when they demanded restitution, telling one of his victims that he could be forced to pay millions of dollars in damages if he shared his experiences with anyone, including an attorney.

One of the employees said he was so depressed over his treatment by Halunen that he later tried to kill himself. The man was 19 when was hired as a legal assistant by Halunen, who was then 52 and one of the most successful employment lawyers in Minnesota. Halunen is openly gay and has advocated for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"I extend my deepest apologies and sincerest regret to these two former employees for the actions described in the petition," Halunen said in a written response to questions from the Star Tribune. "Several years ago, when the events in the [state] petition took place, I was going through a difficult personal period. But I have committed to understanding my actions which led to poor judgment, including intensive therapy and personal reflection."

Halunen now faces punishment for his misconduct, but the case is raising new questions about the state Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility (OLPR), which was on the verge of dismissing the case against Halunen in 2020, state records show.

Attorney Joni Thome, who worked with Halunen before leaving his firm with a group of lawyers in 2011, said in an affidavit that she brought her concerns about Halunen's behavior to the state board in 2007, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2017 and 2018 — only to see nothing happen.

In an interview, Thome said she is "grateful" the board is finally taking action against Halunen, but she said she was frustrated by the board's unwillingness to hold Halunen accountable for so long.

"The board has had a conservative response to reports of misconduct over the years, not just as it relates to Clayton Halunen," Thome said. "And that is concerning to me."

OLPR director Susan Humiston declined to address criticism of the agency's handling of complaints about Halunen, saying it would be "inappropriate" to respond while the Minnesota Supreme Court is considering how to discipline him.

But Humiston defended the agency's overall performance.

"We take every complaint that is filed seriously," Humiston said in a written response to questions. "We take pride in a complete investigation that is fair to all individuals involved."

Humiston was reappointed to a new two-year term in April despite a scathing performance review by a state oversight board that blamed her for high turnover and a decline in the agency's quality of work.

The oversight board said some case files demonstrated "inadequate investigation" and "nonexistent analysis of important legal questions."

Chris Madel, one of the attorneys representing Halunen's victims, said he was astonished by the agency's "lukewarm response" to credible allegations of sexual misconduct. Madel said he contacted OLPR and threatened to appeal any dismissal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which had previously reversed the board on its disciplinary findings.

One of the victims "tried to take his life because of this," Madel said. "I asked myself: Could I live with myself if this happened to someone else and I didn't do anything about it?"

That victim was Dylan Stanek, who was working at McDonald's in 2014 when he met Halunen through Grindr, which bills itself as "the world's largest social networking app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people."

Stanek told Halunen that he wasn't his type, given the wide age difference, but he agreed to meet for coffee, where Halunen bragged about his law firm, OLPR investigative records show. Stanek said he hated his fast-food job. Halunen asked if he'd like to join his firm as a legal assistant. Within days, Stanek was on the payroll at $14 an hour.

Stanek told investigators that he was not interested in a romantic relationship, but that he agreed to hang out with Halunen and his husband, going to parties with them and taking trips to Halunen's cabin and Steamboat Springs, Colo. Each trip, however, ended with Halunen making sexual advances, according to Stanek's complaint to OLPR.

Stanek said Halunen fondled his genitals and tried to initiate sexual intercourse on at least two occasions, breaking off one encounter only after he spotted his husband returning to the house. In 2015, Halunen threatened to fire Stanek if he didn't have sex with him, according to Stanek's complaint.

When Stanek confronted Halunen over his behavior in 2019, Halunen asked why he didn't file a sexual harassment case or alert the authorities before he quit the firm in 2017.

"Because, Clayton, I was 19," Stanek said, according to a transcript of the conversation that Stanek recorded and turned over to OLPR. "I didn't know any better. I was at the bottom of the totem pole at your firm. I couldn't talk about anything. ... I had to lie to everybody I worked with all the time."

Halunen told Stanek he never meant to pressure him into anything, according to the transcript. But he told Stanek he would make him pay if he tried to "destroy" his law firm by going public with his complaint, according to the transcript.

Stanek said confronting Halunen led to a mental health crisis that caused him to attempt suicide in 2019. He was fired from his job, but bounced back and is now working for another law firm as a legal assistant. Stanek's complaint to the state shows that he settled his claim against Halunen.

"It's been an uphill battle," Stanek said. "But I cannot say anything negative about Clayton."

Halunen also admitted pursuing a relationship with another male worker at the firm, a 26-year-old law student who joined the firm as an intern in 2017. In a sworn statement, the man said that Halunen jumped into his bed naked while they were on a work-related trip to San Francisco and then climbed on top of him. His name was not disclosed in the disciplinary filing.

"I forcefully pushed him off," he told investigators.

Back in the office, the man said in the statement, Halunen would try to kiss him while they were in the elevator. He said Halunen also sent him provocative text messages. The man said he decided to leave the firm after three months when Halunen tried to get him to sleep in his bed on another work trip.

"I've been mostly jobless for the last few years," the man told state investigators in 2021. "And I often wonder, 'What if I had kept going? What if I had allowed him to kiss me?' But at some point it was just way too much."

At least three lawyers left the firm after witnessing improper behavior from Halunen or hearing from co-workers about incidents of sexual misconduct, affidavits gathered by OLPR show. At least four of Halunen's employees have complained of his advances, with several obtaining out-of-court settlements, OLPR records and interviews show.

Through one of his attorneys, Halunen acknowledged in a letter to the state board that he engaged in "consensual" sex with with some of the "young gay men" he has mentored over the years. In the letter, attorney Eric Cooperstein said Halunen's success made him a target for those who wanted to exploit his sexuality for their own "ulterior motives."

"The sexual encounters of gay men are still a taboo subject for most people," Cooperstein said in the August 2020 letter.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, one of the few openly gay members of the Legislature, said he hopes the case does not confirm negative stereotypes about gay people.

"In our professional capacities, it doesn't matter who we are, or what our identity is — the standards of conduct are the same," Dibble said.

To guard against future misconduct, Halunen said in his statement to the newspaper that he has removed himself from the hiring process and established a hotline for employee complaints. He said the firm also has updated its respectful workplace policies and hired a full-time human resource professional.

In recommending a six-month suspension, OLPR director Humiston noted that Halunen's psychologist found there is a "vanishingly small" probability of a recurrence of improper behavior.

Some lawyers familiar with the case, however, think Halunen deserves a tougher sentence.

"A six-month suspension isn't enough," said attorney Lori Peterson, who specializes in sexual harassment cases. "How many people are you allowed to harass and sexually abuse and threaten before you get disbarred?"