MILACA, Minn. — Findings of vindictive prosecution by Mille Lacs County Attorney Joe Walsh and willful destruction of evidence by the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office led to the dismissal of a felony perjury charge against a Wahkon woman.
Mille Lacs County Judge Matthew M. Quinn issued an order Dec. 23 sanctioning the state of Minnesota for destruction of evidence through the shredding of documents relevant to the criminal prosecution of Lucinda Lou Miller. The order also dismissed the perjury charge against Miller due to “a realistic likelihood of vindictiveness on the part of the County Attorney’s Office’s decision to charge Defendant with perjury.”
Quinn argued the perjury prosecution came as part of a pressure campaign by Miller’s former boyfriend and business partner Brockton Holbert, who together with his attorneys appeared to lobby for criminal charges as a means to force Miller to settle a lengthy civil lawsuit Holbert believed threatened one of his businesses.
But Walsh isn’t going down without a fight. The county attorney penned a letter Dec. 30 strongly denying any wrongdoing in his office’s decision to charge Miller and requesting reconsideration on the basis Quinn should be removed from the criminal proceedings. Quinn is also the judge presiding over the civil dispute between Miller and Holbert, from which the perjury case stemmed. In an order Monday, Jan. 6, Quinn granted permission to Walsh to file a motion seeking reconsideration, after which a briefing schedule may be created.
By phone Tuesday, Jan. 7, Walsh said despite the judge’s potential conflict of interest, his office didn’t request a new judge for the criminal case in deference to the bench.
“We’re a small county and obviously there are only three judges in Mille Lacs County. As a sign of courtesy to the bench, we typically assume that they are able to set aside biases and knowledge they may gain through other outside cases,” Walsh said. “In this case, it appears that the judge wasn’t able to do so. That actually is what we’ve requested reconsideration about, is the code of judicial conduct stating that a judge shall disqualify himself if he has bias concerning personal knowledge of facts that are in dispute or he previously presided as a judge over the matter in another court.”
A closer look at the cases
Miller’s civil lawsuit — filed November 2015 — seeks equitable relief and the dissolution and liquidation of assets of Noble Wear, an Onamia-based business providing custom apparel through screen printing and embroidery. Among a number of other claims, Miller alleges due in part to loans she made to the business totaling $90,000, she was a co-owner/shareholder of Noble Wear with Holbert. Holbert, meanwhile, alleges Miller wrongfully took personal property belonging to him in addition to denying Miller’s ownership claims.
The perjury allegedly occurred when Miller stated in a November 2016 deposition she did not know the whereabouts of a door, reportedly worth $20,000, and a mantle Holbert claimed she took. In a second deposition in February 2017, Miller reversed her statement, indicating she did know where the property was.
A few weeks later, the door and mantle were discovered in storage on the property of a third party known to Miller. Holbert took the items after he apparently enlisted the help of a Mille Lacs County sheriff’s deputy, according to an email from Miller’s attorney, Joseph Kantor, to Holbert’s attorney, Richard Curott.
In an affidavit filed a day later, Miller stated she hadn’t shared the location of the door and mantle earlier because “(she) was scared that (Holbert) would show up and steal more of (her) property.”
In July 2018, the county attorney’s office filed two felony perjury charges against Miller — one concerning the property matter, and another concerning alleged perjury about a prior arrest in Kentucky. The state later dismissed the second charge but continued to pursue the first.
In seeking dismissal of the remaining perjury charge, Miller and her lawyers argued Holbert and his attorneys sought criminal prosecution as a way to pressure Miller into settling the civil dispute and coordinated those efforts with the county attorney’s office. Quinn found merit in Miller’s argument, based on a number of factors.
Among them was the timing of the criminal charges, which came shortly after the court sanctioned Holbert for intentional destruction of evidence due to the deletion of years of his and Miller’s emails. The sanction leveled against Holbert meant a future jury would be instructed Miller was a 50% owner of Noble Wear, and the matter would no longer be an issue for trial. The judge also cited documented correspondence between Holbert and his attorneys with sheriff’s office and county attorney’s office officials.
“... Both Holbert and Curott attempted to use the threat of a criminal prosecution to gain leverage in the civil case in an attempt to compel Defendant to settle her claims,” Quinn’s order stated. “It is also apparent that Holbert and Curott sought to have criminal charges brought so that they may force a settlement and avoid the continuing cost of litigation in the civil matter and to avoid losing control over the business Noble Wear.”
Quinn also pointed to County Attorney Walsh’s previous six-year employment with Curott and Associates, Curott’s law firm, as a possible explanation for why Walsh “would make such a potentially unethical decision.”
“The Court notes that this previous business connection, in isolation, would not give credence to Defendant’s vindictive prosecution claim, however, given the facts of this case viewed in aggregate, such a theory is not unreasonable,” Quinn wrote. “Based upon said theory, this court finds that a rational explanation exists as to why Joseph Walsh would coordinate with Holbert/Curott’s office to bring the charges at that time in a collaborative effort to force Defendant into a settlement agreement, and as such further supports this Court applying the presumption of vindictiveness in this case.”
Quinn went on to argue that by shredding a number of documents, the sheriff’s office assisted in the violation of Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure. In January 2019, Assistant County Attorney Ben Wold acknowledged a sheriff’s investigator shredded an unspecified number of documents “unrelated to his criminal investigation against Ms. Miller” in an email to Miller’s lawyer, Timothy Maher. Documents destroyed included a letter from Holbert to former Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren, requesting the sheriff’s office investigate Miller’s alleged perjury to avoid the loss of Noble Wear. The letter is part of the record in the civil lawsuit.
“If they win, Noble Wear closes and 20 families and myself are out of work and Onamia has another big empty building,” Holbert wrote to Lindgren. “... Lu’s lies have cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. They will cost me Noble Wear if they are not exposed.”
The letter also indicated the case had been dropped at one time, which Quinn provided as another reason indicating outside pressure encouraged the county attorney’s office to proceed with charges.
The state prosecution’s failure to provide all evidence available to the defense because documents were shredded amounted to a criminal procedure rules violation, Quinn ruled. As a sanction for that offense, the judge denied Walsh the opportunity to rebut the court’s finding of vindictive prosecution.
County attorney responds
On stationery featuring the tagline “Justice Without Fear or Favor,” Walsh hit back at a number of Quinn’s arguments, starting with his limited involvement in the case.
“As the elected County Attorney, this is my first act of any consequence regarding this case,” Walsh wrote.
Walsh accused Quinn of being unable to separate himself from the related civil matter, arguing the judge should have recused himself on his own without needing a request from either party. He pointed to the unusual inclusion of a large number of documents and facts derived from the civil lawsuit in the order, which is a departure from typical practice in a criminal matter.
The county attorney found fault in Quinn’s factual and legal bases for his decision, stating the cases cited in the judge’s order lacked relevance or similarities to the matter at hand.
“Even with a nationwide search, the only case the Court found with any similar claim by a defendant concluded that such a presumption was improper,” Walsh wrote. “... To accomplish its intended objective, this Court … invented a new evidentiary presumption when it could not find supportive case law, and did not give the State due process to rebut it. Results-based judicial decisionmaking is a scourge on the legal profession. If it becomes the norm, it is a harbinger of the end of thinking lawyers and thoughtful practice of law.”
Walsh rejected Quinn’s argument that his previous employment with Curott’s law office had any impact on his office’s decision to pursue criminal charges against Miller. He wrote he is neither under the control or Curott, nor does he condone his actions.
“I knocked on 4,000 doors for the privilege of quitting my job with Mr. Curott, and I would do it again. Mr. Curott wields no influence on me or my office,” Walsh wrote.
The assumption the perjury case was at one time closed — derived from Holbert’s letter to former Sheriff Lindgren — was toxic and incorrect, according to Walsh.
“This Court accuses my office of vindictively reopening consideration of the perjury charge against Lucinda Miller. This is false. There were numerous other allegations by Mr. Holbert against Lucinda Miller which were declined and closed,” the letter stated. “The State took its time in reviewing the perjury case in the hope that the civil case would resolve prior to the State’s charging decision. … Waiting for this civil litigation to resolve would have required the criminal statute of limitations to run.”
Walsh also went to bat for Lindgren and his investigator concerning the destroyed evidence.
“Presumably, the Sheriff saw the letter for what it was, an inappropriate attempt to use sympathy to sway an independent criminal investigation. It is entirely possible that the Sheriff intentionally chose not to share this letter with the investigator or my office to avoid the very influence that the Court now claims,” Walsh wrote. “... This Court’s decision creates a Catch-22 where it is impossible to eliminate all possibility of unconscious bias due to sympathy.”
Striking back at Quinn’s assertion of the chilling effect on civil litigation, Walsh said Quinn’s order would have a similar impact on criminal cases in the county.
“This order will deter the State from bringing a criminal action where there is an actual or potential related civil dispute,” the letter stated. “... Despite the obvious attack on my character in this Court’s Order, I take solace in knowing that my office fairly and independently reviewed this criminal case based only on the evidence that a crime was committed without taking into account any pending civil action in any way. This Court cannot say the same.”