The Lakeville Police Department was justified in firing a journalist-turned-officer last year for leaking details of investigations to a Twin Cities TV station, according to a state arbitrator's ruling. But an attorney for the officer is arguing that the firing violated his free-speech rights.
Rick Bussler worked for the Lakeville police for 17 years — and also created a publishing company in 2009 that owns three outstate newspapers — before being fired on grounds that he released details of active investigations to a KMSP-TV reporter and was dishonest when asked if he was the source of the leaks.
Marshall Tanick, an attorney for Bussler, said Friday that a Police Department policy prohibiting the release of information without the chief's permission was "overbroad" and "not lawfully applied" to Bussler.
Bussler denied the department's claims and appealed his firing this year to a state arbitrator, who ruled in September in favor of Lakeville. According to a report by arbitrator Rolland Toenges, Police Chief Jeff Long first confronted Bussler about speaking to the media without permission after a fatal car crash in January 2014.
The report said Long "coached" Bussler on media relations and told him not to speak to the media again without permission. But that May, a KMSP helicopter hovered above a Lakeville park within 45 minutes after police found human remains thought to be of a missing person.
"The extensive and detailed information had by the press hindered the investigation, which remains unsolved today," the report said.
The August 2014 arrest of Robert Otteson — suspected of killing a man in Texas in the 1980s — also made TV news as the arrest happened. Bussler acknowledged speaking to the media in both cases but refused to release his phone records.
According to the report, Bussler is also "an acknowledged and professional friend of the reporter that had the unauthorized information in both the May and August 2014 incidents."
Tanick said that Bussler acknowledged talking to the media but that "there is some dispute as to what exactly he did tell the reporter." Tanick said what Bussler shared was "not disruptive or [in] any way interfered with law enforcement activities or gave out any confidential or private data."
Long did not return messages seeking comment on Friday.
Bussler is listed as the owner of newspapers in Blooming Prairie, West Concord and Kasson in southeastern Minnesota. He worked in media before becoming an officer and helped produce a Lakeville police cable television program for years.
After details of two investigations made the news without the police chief's approval, the department found Bussler to be the source of the leaks after an internal review. A private investigator called Bussler "deceptive, lacking memory of important details and facts."
The Lakeville Police Department said the leaks caused other agencies to believe Lakeville "cannot be trusted to maintain proper control of information."
A decision whether to seek legal action against Lakeville could come "relatively soon," Tanick said.