• 45°

Ex-DNR worker accused of thousands of database snoops

He looked up TV reporters and lawyers, police and lawmakers, people he’d seen on Facebook, prosecutors say. Few fell under the scope of his job duties. Almost all were women.

In all, the former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employee who is accused of using his access to inappropriately scour private data made more than 19,000 queries over five years, according to charges filed Thursday, Feb. 7, in Ramsey County District Court.

John Austin Hunt, 48, of Woodbury has been charged with six misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors. Among them: misconduct of a public employee, unauthorized computer access, unlawful use of data, and using encryption to conceal a crime.

Prosecutors said the former DNR captain, who was the administrative manager of the agency’s enforcement division, searched and stockpiled driver’s license photos, physical descriptions, home addresses, driving records and other data about hundreds of women.

Hunt did not return a voice message seeking comment Thursday.

According to the criminal complaint, he had access to the data because his job included background checks on DNR job applicants. But the charges say he went far beyond that, running 4,000 queries a year when the job required no more than 500.

About 94 percent of his searches involved women.

They were federal and state political officials, members of the Legislature, judges, county and city prosecutors, state and city police officers, reporters and current and past DNR employees.

The DNR said he looked up at total of about 5,000 individuals.

Investigators found almost 200 driver’s license photos of women on one of his computers, copied from the Driver and Vehicles Services database.

They also found queries tied to women he’d looked up on Facebook or searched for on Google, the complaint said. Investigators also determined that Hunt would pull data on female news anchors shortly after their broadcasts ended.

Several Pioneer Press reporters and their family members were among those whose data Hunt is accused of searching for.

About 60 percent of the searches were made while Hunt was off duty, according to the complaint.

The DNR assigned Hunt three laptops and one external hard drive for his job. Investigators found he’d encrypted the files on the devices, according to the charges.

Hunt was responsible for ensuring the enforcement division properly used the data to which it had access.

He was fired Jan. 11, the DNR said. The agency also notified by letter the subjects of the searches.

Hunt has no prior criminal record in Minnesota. His first court appearance is scheduled for March 5.

Cary Schmies, an assistant Duluth City Attorney, is prosecuting the case because St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing was among the women Hunt allegedly searched for.

Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman said in a statement that those with access to Driver and Vehicles Services data “must be held accountable for their obligations under state and federal law.”

She said the Department of Public Safety, which controls the data, is working to make sure the information is used appropriately. Last year, the department began auditing the heaviest DVS data users. It instituted random audits last month and will “continue to aggressively monitor the system in order to prevent abuse and address any illegal activity,” Dohman said.

Hunt was charged after the department struck a tentative deal to settle a lawsuit with a former St. Paul police officer whose driver’s license information was accessed inappropriately by other officers.

The former officer, Anne Marie Rasmusson, said fellow officers pulled her data hundreds of times to ogle her photo.

A Public Safety spokesman wouldn’t confirm details of the pending settlement, but Rasmusson’s lawyer said it would include regular audits of top Driver and Vehicles Services searchers and search targets and additional training for law enforcement about privacy laws.

A lawsuit over the DNR breach was filed on Rasmusson’s behalf Tuesday in federal court.

The suit names Hunt and dozens of other DNR and Department of Public Safety employees as defendants. Four women whose data Hunt accessed are named as plaintiffs.

The complaint repeats the criminal allegations, saying Hunt at times accessed data inappropriately “immediately after leaving a seminar on law enforcement data practices.”

It claims that DNR and DPS “have lax policies or lax enforcement of these policies that allow for these intrusions,” and that the agencies “either have no viable method or have an inadequate method of ascertaining and controlling the illegal access” to private data.

The lawsuit seeks class-action status and at least $10 million in damages.

As of Thursday, more than 20 people were involved from all over the state, with more calls coming in daily, said Jeff Monpetit, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

“They’re really asking questions as to why did this happen, why me?” he said.

Monpetit said people who didn’t know Hunt are especially concerned about why they may have been singled out.

Chris Niskanen, the DNR’s communications director, said the agency is “doubling down” on its data practices training and will start its own audits of DVS data searches.

He said several hundred DNR employees have access to parts or all of the database, along with thousands of other people statewide ranging from police to towing services to news media.

State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said improper access of that data has been a problem that “just doesn’t seem to get any better.”

Holberg said she’s glad Hunt was charged but frustrated he wasn’t noticed even as he ran thousands of searches.

She is proposing legislation that would toughen penalties for data violations and require better security measures and greater transparency for breaches.