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Minn. officials settle FD whistleblower lawsuit

Two former Lexington firefighters were awarded payments following claims they were fired for reporting misconduct in the department

By Tim Harlow
Star Tribune

LEXINGTON, Minn. — Lexington has settled a lawsuit filed by two former employees who claimed the small Anoka County suburb violated the state’s Whistleblower Act when they were terminated after reporting alleged misconduct within the city’s fire department.

Firefighter Mindy Fiester was awarded $65,000 and firefighter and captain Todd Messer was awarded $45,000, according to terms of the settlement approved June 20 by the Lexington City Council. The settlement followed a mediation session in April.

The payments come from the city’s insurance provider, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, bringing an end to a case that has gone on for almost three years and driven conflict between city leaders. The trust decided to settle for a variety of reasons, including the potential for costly litigation.

“The attorney’s fees and possibly other damages could have been far in excess of what the settlement was,” city attorney Curt Glaser said. “The League was wise to put this money out there and close this matter.”

In settling the case, the city made no admission of liability for the claims and said it looks forward to moving on from the suit.

That may be easier said than done. Some City Council members at last week’s meeting said the suit could have been avoided. They accused former fire chief and current mayor Gary Grote of lying and denying that he knew but failed to act on the allegations of sexual abuse brought forth by Fiester in December 2020.

“I did not know about the incident,” Grote said in response to the accusation from Council Member Mike Murphy at the meeting. Grote said he would “put my hand on a Bible and swear to it.”

The lawsuit said Fiester went to Grote with an allegation that another firefighter had sexually abused a minor child. Several months later, Fiester brought up the incident again when she met with Grote for a performance review. In July 2021, she told Messer about the case and that no action had been taken, the suit said.

A month later, Fiester met with Glaser and City Administrator Bill Petracek and learned she was being investigated for not complying with rules for mandated reporters. Fiester was given the option of resigning or being terminated. She left the department in November 2021.

Messer met with Grote in July 2021 and brought up Fiester’s issue, telling Grote the other firefighter’s behavior was “unbecoming,” “illegal and “fell under the category of gross misconduct.” Grote said he could not suspend the firefighter because there were no criminal charges in the case, the complaint said.

Two months later, Messer was called to a meeting with Grote and was told a city attorney was investigating him. In November 2021, Messer was informed he was being terminated for not complying with rules for mandated reporters, discussing the accused firefighter’s behavior during an officer’s meeting, seeking advice from a fire chief in another jurisdiction and having red and blue lights in his vehicle, the lawsuit said.

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Messer’s impression was that the city terminated employees associated with reporting the firefighter’s alleged actions and resigned in December 2021, the suit said.

Minnesota’s Whistleblower Act says no employer shall discharge any employee who in good faith reports a violation, a suspected violation or planned violation of state or federal law. Fiester and Messer sued because they said they suffered emotional distress, humiliation, pain and suffering, loss of wages, benefits and “other damages,” the suit said.

The accused firefighter no longer works for the city, Petracek said.

The investigation revealed that Fiester recorded the meeting when she was in for a performance review and the discussion about the lack of progress in investigating the firefighter’s behavior. The tape appeared to have revealed Grote knew about the allegations but didn’t take action.

That was a testy issue at the June 20 meeting before the council approved the settlement. Murphy said Grote had been lying under oath.

“We have evidence that is even documented that proves you lied under oath,” Murphy said.

“I was transparent,” replied Grote, whose mayoral term ends at the end of the year. He said he started investigating once he had all the information. “I know you want to run for mayor, Mike, and you are going to do whatever you can to make me look bad,” Grote said.

Asked if he’d release the tape and transcript to the public, Grote said, “Why would you want to do that? I don’t want that interview to get on the tape or out to the public. They don’t need to hear about it.”

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