Former Commerce official alleges harassment

Published 2:04 pm Saturday, April 9, 2016

ST. PAUL — A former top official at Minnesota’s Department of Commerce is suing the state over alleged sexual harassment and retaliation from a fellow agency executive whom he said ordered his staff to destroy documents — a possible violation of state law.

Timothy Vande Hey filed his lawsuit Thursday, months after he abruptly resigned from his post leading the agency’s insurance division last summer,.

Vande Hay accuses the regulatory department’s second-ranking official, Deputy Commissioner Anne O’Connor, of making overtly sexual advances and jokes over his three years at the department. Vande Hey also she ordered his staff to destroy or delay the release of documents before they could be disclosed as part of a records request, and that Commissioner Miek Rothman failed to respond when alerted to the concerns.

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“I feel strongly that Commissioner Rothman has lost his way and that he should resign as a result of all this,” Vande Hey said in an interview. Vande Hey is seeking monetary damages for lost income, emotional distress and being a whistleblower.

Rothman dismissed the allegations as “simply false” in a statement, calling O’Connor an “outstanding person.”

“I am confident that the legal process will demonstrate that this suit has absolutely no merit,” Rothman said. The department declined a request to interview O’Connor.

It’s just the latest brush with controversy for the regulatory agency, which has a heavy hand in overseeing MNsure. In 2014, the Department of Commerce faced weeks of questions from skeptical lawmakers about whether department negotiators exerted undue pressure on an insurance company to lower their prices, leading to their eventual exit from the state-run health exchange.

Vande Hey did not specify in his lawsuit what documents were allegedly directed to be destroyed, but he said he bristled at the idea that the state should try to dodge its responsibilities to turn over public information.

“In my 20 years, I’ve never felt the need to bend, let alone break, the law to protect citizens,” he said. “I didn’t agree with destruction of records. I told my people we’re the good guys, we don’t do that.”

When he raised that concern with Rothman, he said he was ignored and later punished, with reports from his staff were undermined and requests to fill vacancies blocked.

The agency has 20 days to respond with its own court filing. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office did not return a voicemail seeking comment.