County board votes to terminate employee, another given verbal warning after phone recording incident

Published 3:02 pm Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday voted 3-2 to terminate an employee in the county’s IT department who reportedly recorded a phone call between three other employees and then disseminated it to some other employees. 

Alex Hannegrefs-Dahlen was approved for regular, full-time status with the county in July 2021 and was placed on administrative leave March 4 of this year. 

The board reached the decision after going into closed session for discussion. 

Commissioners Brad Edwin and Dan Belshan voted against the action. 

Edwin said he thought there should have been further discussion about what other action the board could have taken, and Belshan said he thought a reprimand would have been more appropriate. 

The board also voted to issue a verbal reprimand to Freeborn County Assessor Jaci Koeppen, who had been shown the recording and who then made a copy of it and took it to her attorney. 

The commissioners voted to take no disciplinary action against IT Director Scott Woitas, who had reportedly been asked to terminate Hannegrefs-Dahlen and forgot to get a phone back that belonged to the county. 

Koeppen had been on administrative leave since March 7, and Woitas was put on leave last Wednesday. 

Steven Hovey, who represented Koeppen and Woitas, argued that while county boards have a role to play in the assessor’s role, the ultimate authority is with the commissioner of revenue. The assessor is selected by the county board and submitted to the commissioner of revenue for approval. He said the appointment was for four years, and Koeppen had been in the position for about a year and a half. 

Hovey said Administrator Tom Jensen’s letter recommending Koeppen’s termination said Jensen had determined Koeppen engaged in misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance. 

The lawyer said there was no evidence to determine cause or reasonable basis tied to the termination and said there should be no expectation of privacy when using emails or phone calls in the county system.

The call took place between Human Resources Director Candace Pesch and County Auditor-Treasurer Pat Martinson and another employee of the auditor’s office. 

“Ms. Pesch, as embarrassed as she may be by what she did during the telephone call, there’s no expectation of privacy,” Hovey said. 

He described the call as essentially “gossiping” about people in the assessor’s office.

Hannegrefs reportedly played the recording for Koeppen and others in the assessor’s office. 

When asked why she took a copy of the recording, Koeppen said she had gone to Pesch a few days prior about some issues between some people in her office and who she described as “one of the major players” in the auditor’s office. She said because Pesch was personal friends with her, she did not feel like she had a way to come talk to anyone, and she said Pesch assured her they don’t talk about county business together when they’re together outside of work.

“Getting this recording, knowing what she had told me is not true, I thought, ‘I think I need to keep a copy of this as proof of what I’m accusing her of and being put in a position where I can’t talk to HR, and the administrator for that matter, and I needed to have some proof there was some stuff going on.”

Koeppen said Hannegrefs-Dahlen had approached her about having a meeting and when they were in her office started playing the recording. The recording had three identifiable voices, who were talking about a person in the department who was leaving and then they went on to talk about others in her department in a manner she did not feel was appropriate.

Belshan said he thought the board should move on past Koeppen. He said she made a mistake but also noted the need for properly training employees about data practices. 

“This is causing angst amongst many people,” he said, noting it was time to get people back to work.

Commissioner John Forman asked if by not doing anything that was the right thing to do. He motioned to have a verbal reprimand be placed in Koeppen’s file. 

Edwin said he was concerned with the time it took to bring the matter to the board and said he was concerned about the creation of a hostile work environment. 

“We need to realize this and move forward in a positive way,” he said. 

Hovey said Woitas was out of town the day the recording took place and he learned of it the following day. Administrator Tom Jensen was unavailable at that time, so he reported it to Pesch. From there is where he said “things went off the rails but not because of Mr. Woitas.” 

The lawyer said Pesch told Woitas to put Hannegrefs-Dahlen on administrative leave, without any type of verbal or written instructions. 

Woitas did that and then for the next two months worked with Jensen and the county on data security. 

“If Mr. Woitas was such a threat to data security of Freeborn County, why was he put in charge of that the last 2 1/2 months?” Hovey said. 

Human Resources people typically receive specific training about what to do when an employee is terminated, which equipment needs to be recovered and what you do if an employee refuses to turn stuff back in, and he said Woitas can’t be expected to know all of this when he has not been trained to do so. 

The county also went off the rails when Woitas, himself, was placed on administrative leave last week, telling him to meet in Jensen’s office in two hours and to bring his phone and badge, Hovey said. He asked why they would do that, considering the damage a person in IT could potentially do in that amount of time. 

“This is not a problem with what Mr. Woitas did. …” Hovey said. “This is a problem with your Human Resources department.”

He said the department was not doing the job it should have been doing and should have been the one to put Hannegrefs-Dahlen on administrative leave. 

They’re not doing the job they’re supposed to be doing… they should have put them on administrative leave because others aren’t trained to do it.”

Edwin and Belshan said they thought no action should be taken against Woitas. Edwin said it was not Woitas’ job to put someone on administrative leave. 

Commissioner Chris Shoff said he, too, could not support a reprimand as he had done something similar when he put Woitas on leave the week before. Shoff said he did not remember to get Woitas’ keys back.