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Ex-Hawley police chief still trying to clear his name

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HAWLEY, Minn. - Six years after he was fired as this city's police chief, Mark Hanson is still waging a court battle to clear his name.

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New revelations in a federal lawsuit this summer could help him set the record straight.

Hanson contends he was discriminated against by the city of Hawley because of his alcoholism, the instigating factor behind his termination in 2005.

In 2009, Hanson sued his former attorney Randolph Stefanson in U.S. District Court, accusing him of "several procedural mistakes" that caused the "unfavorable verdict" against the city of Hawley.

Hanson alleges the Moorhead attorney failed to file the proper paperwork in a timely manner when Hanson sued the city of Hawley in 2006.

Hanson claims Stefanson's "negligence" caused him to miss his window of opportunity to seek vindication for what he contends was a wrongful termination.

Stefanson told The Forum on Friday that he still agrees Hanson shouldn't have been fired - but he said it's up to the federal courts to decide the issue of negligence.

"It appears we may still be a ways from resolution, but to date, having gone through a number of appeals and hearings, all I conclude is that this lawsuit will be dismissed," Stefanson said.

As that dispute between Hanson and Stefanson wages on, Hanson and his current attorney David Wymore say they've uncovered new details that show some city leaders could've withheld vital information that would've prevented Hanson's termination in the first place.

That evidence might also help Hanson get his argument reconsidered in the federal lawsuit against Stefanson, Wymore said.

Hanson's ordeal began in May 2005, when he was found to have been intoxicated while on the job.

The incident sparked a firestorm against Hanson and his reputation. Various city officials alleged he had a problem with alcohol dating back at least several years - which Hanson didn't dispute.

However, according to documents filed this summer in U.S. District Court:

Stefanson wrote a letter to Hawley city attorney Zenas Baer seeking accommodation for Hanson shortly after the May 2005 incident.

Citing his alcoholism disability, Hanson requested leave from his job so he could undergo alcohol treatment.

Baer acknowledged Hanson's request in a letter dated Aug. 4 - about one week before city leaders ultimately approved Hanson's termination.

Hanson had been the police chief since 1991.

Now, six years later, at least three Hawley leaders who cast votes to fire Hanson have come forward, saying they never received the letter indicating Hanson's intent to seek treatment.

City Council members John Young Jr. and Stacey Reidberger and former Personnel Committee member Jerry Pederson have each signed a sworn statement, declaring that had they known about Stefanson's letter and Hanson's willingness to seek alcohol treatment, they wouldn't have voted for Hanson's dismissal.

Memories have naturally faded some over the years - but Young said recently he didn't recall Hanson ever indicating he wanted treatment, as Stefanson's original letter would have showed.

"It would've been different if (Hanson) admitted he had a problem and was planning to go in to treatment," Young told The Forum recently. "I never saw that letter that I can recall."

Wymore, Hanson's current attorney, argued in court documents that Baer and then-Mayor Davis Blakeway allegedly failed to pass on the letter to the officials who would decide Hanson's fate.

Baer told The Forum this summer he remembered the general events of Hanson's termination but "couldn't speak about details of any specific letter."

Wymore is continuing to seek judicial approval so Hanson's claims can be reconsidered at the district level.

In May 2010, a District Court judge dismissed Hanson's portion of the federal lawsuit, but Wymore argued unforeseen obstacles kept Hanson from getting a fair shot.

Hanson's attorney at that time, Richard Diamond, was battling cancer, which he ultimately died from earlier this year.

Wymore said Diamond's terminal illness prevented him from tracking down important evidence that would've supported Hanson's claims against Stefanson.

Wymore won a small victory on appeal this past week that could give Hanson the chance to get his case reconsidered. If that happens, Hanson will have the new evidence to use as more ammunition in his court fight.

Meanwhile, though, Hanson still faces a counterclaim from Stefanson, who alleges Hanson still owes him thousands in legal fees.

Wymore is also seeking another piece of information he said could support Hanson's claims: a recording of the closed session that Hawley City commissioners held the day they voted to fire Hanson.

Wymore and Hanson believe the contents of that tape could show whether city leaders discussed Stefanson's letter to Baer and knew of Hanson's intent to seek treatment.

Wymore says Baer and Hawley Clerk Lisa Jetvig have refused to release the 48-minute recording of that Aug. 12, 2005 meeting.

The Forum was also denied a request under Minnesota's open records law for a copy of the recording. Baer cited the presence of confidential information and attorney-client privilege during that meeting.

He has not yet responded to a follow-up request by The Forum sent Aug. 9, but Jetvig said Friday a response to that is forthcoming.

She said the recording hasn't been made public because Hanson, himself, originally asked for the meeting to be closed.

She denied Hanson had ever requested the recording from the city - even though Hanson filed a declaration in U.S. District Court earlier this summer stating Jetvig "would not give a copy (of the tape) to my attorneys."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541

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