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Hebert alleges discrimination by Winona County

ST. PAUL — Former Winona County administrator Duane Hebert filed a complaint Friday with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights alleging that the Winona County Board of Commissioners discriminated against him when they terminated him in May.

Erick Kaardal , Hebert's lawyer, said Monday that it's the first step toward filing a lawsuit over a situation that blew up in March over a proposed solar energy project involving Rochester-based Novel Energy Solutions.

Hebert was placed on paid administrative leave before being fired in May. The county alleged that he failed to disclose a conflict of interest regarding the solar proposal. An investigation that cost Winona County about $32,000 found that Hebert's wife of 31 years was an employee, investor and partial owner of NES.

However, Kaardal contends that Hebert's wife was neither an investor nor owner, and had only served as an independent contractor who earned $17,000 for her role as bookkeeper in 2013. As such, Kardaal argues that Hebert and his wife should have been protected by the Human Rights Act — and cites case law from a 2012 Minnesota Appellate Court ruling to substantiate that claim.

Jeff Holman, of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, declined comment Monday, citing data privacy. The agency has up to a year to determine the validity of the claim and complete its investigation. However, Hebert can move forward with legal action after 45 days, Kaardal said.


"We'll proceed to a lawsuit one way or the other," said Kaardal, a Minneapolis-based attorney who provided a copy of the two-page complaint. "The Department of Human Rights might file a lawsuit for us. If not, then we'll file a lawsuit ourselves.

"This is really quite an extraordinary situation. For (the county) to violate the law so publicly is outrageous conduct."

Winona County Board chairwoman Marcia Ward did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the Winona County Attorney's Office.

Though the situation has been boiling for five months, Hebert remains irked that he's yet to be able to address the county board directly about the situation and has been denied severance benefits. He officially requested a "name-clearing hearing" last month. That request was initially granted before being denied as legal questions swirled.

Ward previously characterized the situation as "uncharted territory" that was still being discussed internally. However, three county board meetings have passed since then without Hebert being afforded the chance to speak.

"I'm not going to sit around forever," said Hebert, who was hired in 2009. "It's time to move forward and have someone from outside look at this now."

Winona County previously paid a Minneapolis law firm to conduct an investigation into the controversy. The 52-page report filed May 6 was the basis for Hebert being fired.

However, that process was criticized by Hebert,and Kaardal offered another critique on Monday.


"There are so many factual errors in the county's report and final decision (and) it just took that long to trace down every fact," Kaardal said. "It looks like the report was written to support the conclusion of terminating Duane. It it weren't so sad, it'd be comical."

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