In what could be one of the first tests of the state's new tougher data practices laws, the police chief in St. Francis recently initiated a criminal investigation into one of his own officers on allegations that he illegally accessed private data.

The officer is accused of viewing recordings of candidates interviewing for a police department promotion and then sharing them with others, including a member of the City Council.

Chief Jeff Harapat asked the Anoka County Sheriff's Office to look at whether the alleged actions of investigator A.J. Gennaro violated a data privacy law that went into effect Aug. 1 in the wake of reports of widespread snooping into the state's Driver and Vehicle Services database. Under the law, unauthorized access of data is a misdemeanor.

The St. Francis City Council fired Gennaro at its Jan. 5 meeting, and while the action was taken publicly, there was no discussion and no reason given for the termination.

Gennaro could not be reached for comment.

"It's just unfortunate," said Harapat, who said he and the city attorney felt compelled to seek an outside investigation. "It's never a good idea to do an internal investigation on a topic like this. The public would always wonder, 'Are you protecting one of your own?' "

St. Francis City Attorney Scott Lepak said the city is in uncharted territory because the data privacy law that makes unauthorized access a misdemeanor is largely untested.

"I identified the fact there was this new law that may be implicated in the facts here," Lepak said. "We need to get this investigated so there is no conflict of interest."

Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, who has been a proponent of tighter data privacy laws, said he is not familiar with the details of the St. Francis investigation but that the new laws create checks and balances and accountability.

"In a world where all the intimate details of our lives exist in a digital form, these are the types of things that happen," Petersen said. "It's our responsibility to build in some safeguards for people."

Violation a misdemeanor

The 2014 law makes it a misdemeanor for any person to "willfully violate" data privacy laws. Violation by public employees constitutes "just cause for suspension without pay or dismissal."

Anoka County Sheriff's Cmdr. Paul Sommer said one possible victim of a privacy breach is embattled former St. Francis city administrator Matt Hylen, who was put on leave for alleged unspecified misconduct in August shortly after the interview video was circulated.

Hylen, who was captured on the video, was cleared of wrongdoing by an outside investigator hired by the city, reached a settlement with the city and resigned in December. The allegations against him have not been made public.

City Attorney Lepak said the Hylen and Gennaro matters intersect, but are not completely related. "They occurred in the same time context. They don't have the same set of facts. There is a little overlap," Lepak said.

The controversy is the latest to buffet the rural enclave, population 7,300, in northwestern Anoka County. In the St. Francis School District, Superintendent Ed Saxton has been on paid leave for nearly a year after being accused of inflating enrollment numbers to get more money from the state. The Anoka County sheriff is investigating.

Interview videos shared

Chief Harapat said the more recent case began in August. The 11-officer police force decided to add a second sergeant's position. Five internal candidates, including Gennaro, applied for the job. A committee of three — a police leader, city administrator Hylen and a member of the City Council — interviewed each candidate in a conference room at the police station.

That room also doubles as a police interview room and is wired with recording equipment. When a person walks in, cameras automatically start to roll. Only the police chief and the investigator know how to access those recordings, the chief said.

Gennaro is accused of accessing the interview videos and sharing them with at least one member of the City Council, according to the Sheriff's Office.

A spokeswoman for the Anoka County attorney said the case is still being reviewed.

St. Francis Mayor Steve Kane declined to comment.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804