Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert and Sustainability Coordinator Anne Morse will remain on paid administrative leave, and an outside investigator will look into the role county staff had in a solar energy dispute that has sparked a flurry of legal threats against the county. After a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning to discuss allegations against county officials, the County Board voted unanimously to hire a Minneapolis law firm to conduct "an expedited, outside, independent investigation related to [the] solar panel project and any related personnel matters."
"There are pieces of the puzzle that touch many areas within Winona County and so we thought that was the best course of action, to get an independent [investigator] to pull those pieces of the puzzle together for us," said County Board Chair Marcia Ward, when asked about the decision.
Hebert and Morse, who were placed on paid leave last Wednesday, were among the few gathered to hear the board's vote.
Morse was the point person for a proposed solar project that allegedly entered bidding and contract negotiations without the knowledge or approval of the County Board. Hebert's wife, Theresa Hebert, works for the company threatening to sue the county over the project — former County Commissioner Mena Kaehler's family's solar company, Novel Energy Solutions (NES).
The first and last time the project came before the board was February 2013, when Morse introduced a plan to add solar arrays on top of the government center on Main Street and the highway shop in Goodview. She told the board that the deadline to apply for rebates from Xcel Energy for the project was just a few days away, and although several board members, and County Attorney Karin Sonneman, expressed reservations about the proposed financial arrangement, the board voted to allow her to apply for the rebates, but then bring the project back for further review. NES was not mentioned during the February 2013 presentation, but a representative from JJR Powers helped pitch the financial arrangement.
According to a statement offered by NES, it was planning the project with county staff as early as January 2013, along with contractor Innovative Power Systems (IPS). NES said "county staff" knew that Hebert's wife worked for the business and that the company was owned by a former county commissioner's family, but "NES chose to remain in the background publicly so that the project would stand on its own merits and not be positively or negatively impacted by Mena Kaehler (a former Winona County Commissioner), and Theresa Hebert (joined NES in summer of 2013 as bookkeeper and is the wife of Winona County Administrator) being involved with the company."
NES alleges county staff then signed a letter of intent to proceed with the project with one of its competitors, and released NES' trade secret and proprietary information to competitors in a request for proposals.
Disclosure: who knew?
In a statement last week, Hebert claimed that he "provided proper notification to the appropriate Winona County officials as to my wife's employment." However, several county commissioners said they had not been properly notified.
"No, Mr. Hebert did not tell me," said Winona County Board Chair Marcia Ward when asked if Hebert had informed her. She stated that Hebert did not disclose his wife's position to the full board until March 20, 2014, two days after the receipt of first letter from NES lawyers, threatening to sue. She added that commissioners Jim Pomeroy and Wayne Valentine may have had limited information earlier.
Commissioner Wayne Valentine said that last fall he had asked Hebert for an update on the solar project. He said that Hebert said he would check on the progress of the project and mentioned in passing that his wife had taken a position with a solar company, but did not explain that it was the same company that proposed the project to the county. "I definitely know that he did not identify the name of the company or any relationship with the Kaehlers, just that she had taken a job."
Valentine added that at the meeting in February 2013, when the project was first introduced to the County Board, one of the commissioners had asked whether any local companies had expressed interest in the project. County staff told the commissioners there were not local companies involved, Valentine stated.
In an interview after the meeting, Hebert asserted that he had informed Ward and Sonneman of Theresa Hebert's employer and that he had told Valentine the name of his wife's employer and her connection to the county project.
In an interview prior to the statement by Ward, Pomeroy declined to respond to questions regarding Hebert's disclosure of his wife's employer and referred inquiries to the County Attorney. Pomeroy was not immediately available for comment following Ward's statement.
County Attorney Karin Sonneman declined to comment when asked whether Hebert had disclosed his wife's employment to her. Assistant County Administrator and Human Resources Director Maureen Holte also declined to comment when asked if Hebert had disclosed his wife's employment to her.
Hebert himself declined to comment when asked to whom, specifically, he made the disclosure. As he left the County Board room, Hebert said he was unsure what his employment status would be and declined to take further questions.
Morse said she too, had "no idea" what to expect and said she had been told not to speak with the press.
Sonneman and Ward were unsure when asked to whom the investigators will report. There are more details to be ironed out, including establishing a contract and narrowing the scope of the investigation, Ward said.
Valentine said that he hopes the investigation is completed as quickly as possible "so we can take a look at it and move on from there."
On a recommendation from the County Attorney's office, the County Board agreed to hire Lockridge Grindal Nauen Attorneys-at-Law. The prominent Minneapolis-based law firm also operates an office in Washington D.C. and specializes in employment law, business litigation, and government relations, among other practice areas.