The former deputy commissioner for insurance at the Minnesota Department of Commerce has sued the state, claiming he was sexually harassed and then retaliated against by the department’s deputy commissioner and chief of staff.

The lawsuit said department Commissioner Mike Rothman failed to act despite being aware of the allegations.

Rothman denounced the suit in a statement Friday. “My deputy commissioner is an outstanding person, and these allegations are simply false,” Rothman said. “I am confident that the legal process will demonstrate that this suit has absolutely no merit.”

The lawsuit by Timothy Vande Hey, filed in Ramsey County District Court, alleges that Vande Hey was the subject of unwanted sexual advances starting in late 2012 or early 2013 by Anne O’Connor, who at the time was assistant director of communications for the department. O’Connor, now deputy commissioner and chief of staff, was not named in the suit but held the position at the time.

Vande Hey said he was later forced to leave because of a hostile work environment O’Connor and others created in retribution for whistle-blowing by Vande Hey on what he felt were data practice violations.

In an interview, Vande Hey said he at one time thought that he and the department “were going to try to resolve this thing.” Now, he thinks Rothman has “lost his way” and that he should resign for alleged mishandling of Vande Hey’s case.

Vande Hey had served as the deputy commissioner of the insurance division from February 2013 until he resigned last summer. He had previously been an assistant commissioner. Since leaving the department, he has been doing consulting work.

“It’s unfortunate that the treatment he received in his job prevented him from being as effective as he could have been if this harassment and whistle-blowing had not occurred,” Marshall Tanick, Vande Hey’s attorney, said in an interview. “It was damaging to Mr. Vande Hey but also to the state and the public in general.”

The lawsuit claims that after Vande Hey rebuffed several sexual advances, O’Connor sent him a “salacious e-mail” suggesting that Vande Hey, who was then engaged, not marry.

In summer 2013, after Vande Hey was married, the lawsuit claims O’Connor made several sexual jokes about Vande Hey, including at a work-related social gathering where she called him a “generous lover.”

Last April, Vande Hey was asked to travel to an insurance conference in Iowa. O’Connor, by then deputy commissioner and chief of staff, sought to attend the conference, too. At that time, the lawsuit said, Vande Hey sent e-mails to Rothman, O’Connor and the department’s general counsel outlining concerns about O’Connor’s behavior. He was worried it would continue at the Iowa conference.

Last June, Vande Hey made a report about the alleged sexual harassment directly to the general counsel, the lawsuit said.

No action was taken in response to his complaints, the lawsuit said.

Separately, the lawsuit said that in early 2015, O’Connor suggested at a meeting that certain internal documents be destroyed. Vande Hey believed the instruction was against state law, so refused to comply and instructed his staff not to destroy the documents.

Vande Hey reported his concern to the general counsel and directly to Rothman. No action was taken, the lawsuit said.

Vande Hey also asked O’Connor to stop having Rothman review and approve release of data because he believed that delays would violate the Data Practices Act, the lawsuit said. The practice continued with some other important documents such as annual reports.

Vande Hey claims in the suit that O’Connor after that blocked the hiring of staff he needed for his division and undermined his work in other ways as well.

Vande Hey said in the interview that Rothman reacted angrily when he raised questions about staffing issues.

Vande Hey said he at one point offered to resign, but Rothman asked him not to and said he would investigate the issues Vande Hey had raised. The general counsel told Vande Hey that she was conducting an official investigation into his allegations as well, the lawsuit said.

But later, the commissioner said he would accept Vande Hey’s resignation, and Vande Hey left the department last summer.

After his departure, Vande Hey sought reimbursement for $17,000 in relocation expenses he had incurred when he left his previous job in Wisconsin. The department reimbursed him for less than $4,000.

Vande Hey is currently seeking monetary restitution for breach of contract, whistle-blowing and sexual harassment.

 

Twitter: @nicolenorfleet