St. Paul, Minn. — The flap started during a Ward 5 City Council debate last month. Kris Reiter was running for the seat vacated by the death of her father, Jim Reiter, along with four other candidates. Near the end of the debate, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, moderator Sig Johnson read a series of anonymous questions submitted by audience members. Johnson read one card containing a statement about the relationship between Reiter and her campaign co-chair, Sheriff Fletcher, that, a recording provided by KFAI Radio shows, prompted negative reactions from some members of the audience.
Moderator Sig Johnson moved on to other questions. After the debate, Fletcher approached Johnson and asked her for the question cards.
"And I said, 'Sig, you know, that was really inappropriate.' And she said, 'I know, I didn't know what I was reading until after I was through reading it.' And I said, 'well, do you think I could have the card?' And she handed me the stack of cards, probably not knowing which one was the right card, and frankly, she was apologetic, she said, 'I'm sorry,'" according to Fletcher.
Fletcher and Reiter say the statement was slanderous and defamatory, and that they need the cards to make their case. Fletcher threatened to sue the League of Women Voters if the statement was broadcast.
Organizers of the petition drive to recall Fletcher say his confiscation of the cards crossed an ethical line.
"The lead law enforcer for Ramsey County is confiscating cards and threatening suits and threatening fingerprinting and stuff; this has just gone beyond the pale of what is appropriate for him," contends community activist Pam Ellison, who ran for Congress as an Independence Party candidate, was at the debate.
Fletcher says he was at the debate as a private citizen and campaign worker, not as sheriff.
"Just because you're elected as sheriff, you don't give up your rights as a citizen and clearly, we had been defamed in a public place, in a fashion proporting to be fact, in a credible forum," says Fletcher.
Fletcher and Reiter say the allegation that they are more than good friends is false. Fletcher says he was best friends with Jim Reiter, and Kris Reiter worked for Fletcher as his planning and policy director. Reiter says she'll sue the debate's sponsors because she says she and her family have suffered since the statement was read.
"My mother has basically been homebound since this happened; she's so upset, my niece's grades have suffered terribly since the incident, and, you know, I sell real estate for a living, and my business is my name. And to have my name attached to this type of statement is going to cost my money," says Reiter.
Reiter also plans to identify and sue the person who submitted the statement. As a political candidate, Reiter would be considered a public figure, as would Fletcher. Public figures have to meet a higher standard of proof in defamation cases than a typical citizen. The law requires that they prove that someone made a false statement with malicious intent.
Reiter finished second in the election, losing to Lee Helgen, but neither she nor Fletcher blame the debate controversy for her loss.
The group that wants to recall Fletcher must gather about 45,000 signatures to put the matter on the ballot. Organizer Ellison says she thinks Fletcher should be thrown out of office because his behavior after the debate will scare people from participating in the political process.
"If we want to register voters in Ramsey County, we don't do it by making people at open forums feel like they're targets," Ellison says.
If Ellison and others gather the necessary signatures, the state Supreme Court would then decide whether there were sufficient grounds for a recall.
Fletcher says the group would have to prove he committed malfeasance in office, which he says didn't happen.