Meanwhile Brodkorb, who accuses MacDonald of trying to squelch his First Amendment rights as a journalist, asserts that a third allegation in her suit also is factually inaccurate. Minnesota Lawyer could not independently verify that.
MacDonald and her law firm has sued Brodkorb’s muckraking MissingInMinnesota.com website, saying it has violated the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics by repeatedly defaming her. “I want him to stop,” MacDonald said in an interview Wednesday.
With a doggedness that verges on obsession, the site covers just one story — the case of Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, whose children went missing for 944 days until they were found on a northern Minnesota ranch.
Grazzini-Rucki and MacDonald’s 2014 Supreme Court campaign manager, Dede Evavold, both were convicted on six felony counts related to the case. The criminal prosecutions ended two years ago; yet the site has barely slowed its coverage.
There could be a reason for that: Brodkorb and his co-author Allison Mann say they are writing a book about the case and expect to make an announcement about its publication in the coming weeks.
MacDonald’s complaint alleges that site repeatedly has made “false and defamatory” references to her as a “person of interest” in the Grazzini-Rucki case. It also alleges that the site keeps publishing what MacDonald calls a “false image” of herself.
A third count involves a 2013 traffic stop that she says Brodkorb has misrepresented publicly.
‘Person of interest’
MacDonald’s complaint says Brodkorb’s site perpetuates “a lie” when it repeatedly labels her a onetime “person of interest” in the 2013 disappearance of Grazzini-Rucki’s two daughters.
MacDonald alleges that Brodkorb has ignored demands to stop using the descriptor. She was never a person of interest in the case, she insists.
“It’s defamation at this point,” the complaint says, quoting a text message from MacDonald to Brodkorb. “Pull it. These are your words. You labeled me, not them. It’s you. Take it down.”
By “them,” MacDonald means the Lakeville Police Department, which initiated the investigation into the kids’ disappearance. The complaint says MacDonald later contacted the department and was told that she was never considered a “person of interest” in the case.
She also claims that Star Tribune reporter Brandon Stahl, who first used that phrase in his reporting on April 29, 2015, stopped after she contacted him. She said the Star Tribune never again used the phrase.
Neither assertion appears to be true. The Star Tribune — both in Stahl’s reporting and in that of least one other beat writer, Karen Zamora — continued using the phrase long after April 29, 2015. One reference, in a Zamora story, was published as recently as July 29, 2016.
Meanwhile, a Lakeville Police investigator confirmed Thursday morning that investigators initially did consider MacDonald a “person of interest” in the children’s disappearance.
“We believed that she was in the know,” said Lakeville Police Lt. Jason Polinski. Investigators based that suspicion on MacDonald’s “statements and actions” at the time, believing she wasn’t “upfront” about what she knew.
“We believed she was involved and knew what was going on,” Polinski said Thursday. “However, we could never prove that. So she was never a suspect. But, yes, she was a person of interest.”
In an interview Wednesday, Brodkorb said he has been told the same thing by Lakeville police officials somewhere between six and 12 times while reporting the story.
“It’s the reality,” Brodkorb said. “What Michelle, I think, is doing here is she is trying to obfuscate from those underlying facts.”
MacDonald’s suit also charges Brodkorb and his co-author Allison Mann with repeatedly posting a “false image” that she says inaccurately gets depicted as her booking photo.
The photo was taken after a bizarre incident in a Dakota County courtroom on Sept. 12, 2013, during a child custody hearing. MacDonald said she was there representing Grazzini-Rucki, several months after the girls went missing.
In court that day, MacDonald got arrested and was led away by deputies after she took photos in the courtroom against court rules. Video shows that, about a half hour later, she was brought back into court in a wheelchair — she had reportedly refused to stand up and walk back into court on a judge’s order. She was also handcuffed.
MacDonald admits a photo was taken after that incident, but that she was never “booked” into custody, despite spending the night in jail. Therefore, Brodkorb and his site defame her reputation by repeatedly calling it a “booking photo” or “mug shot,” she says.
“I would check into that a little bit,” MacDonald said Wednesday. “Because I am telling you that’s a lie.”
She appears to be incorrect. On Thursday morning, a Dakota County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson found the same image on the county jail’s booking photo database. The image, which the county spokesperson confirmed is a booking shot, was forwarded to Minnesota Lawyer.
“The photograph is not a mug shot,” MacDonald insists. “[Brodkorb] had that surface. It had never surfaced before.”
That leads to a weird twist in the story. On May 25, MacDonald filed a complaint against Brodkorb with Eagan police in connection with the photo.
An officer’s report of that incident, obtained by Minnesota Lawyer, says MacDonald told the cop that Brodkorb himself took the photo, then uploaded it to a public mugshot website, arrestedinminnesota.com—a site that can no longer be found online.
From there, she told the officer, Brodkorb posted the picture to his own website and began misrepresenting it as a booking photo, according to the police report.
But Lakeville Police Officer Mike Reuss said in that report that he found the image on a law enforcement database and judged it to be public-record booking photo. In that report, however, he mislabeled it as a DUI booking photo.
MacDonald’s “criminal defamation” complaint was never investigated.
MacDonald said Wednesday that Reuss misrepresented what she told him. “I never said that to the police officer, I never said it to Brodkorb,” MacDonald said. “It’s a lie.”
That’s “classic Michelle MacDonald,” said blogger Mann. “Everything gets so tangled into this web that she weaves,” Mann said.
MacDonald’s lawsuit also asserts that Brodkorb falsely alleged in a 2016 tweet that she was once convicted for driving while intoxicated. She was charged with DUI following a 2013 traffic stop in Rosemount, but was never convicted on that charge.
She was, however, convicted on a gross misdemeanor count of refusing to submit to a sobriety test and two misdemeanor counts—obstructing the legal process and speeding—in connection with that traffic stop.
Minnesota Lawyer could not find the Brodkorb tweet she alludes to and he says he has never made that claim. “I can find no record whatsoever that I ever said in my reporting that she was convicted of DUI,” he said.
MacDonald is a candidate for Minnesota Supreme Court who was conditionally reinstated as an attorney in April following disciplinary action in January. Her suit against Brodkorb and his MissingInMinnesota.com website charges “defamation per se” and “defamation by implication.”
MacDonald said she thinks that Brodkorb’s website has a vendetta against her and Grazzini-Rucki, one that is financed by David Rucki. She notes that Mann is a paralegal in the office of Lisa Elliott, an attorney who represents David Rucki. Mann confirms that.
However, Brodkorb and Mann both insist that they get no financing from Elliot’s client. “This is all an independent endeavor,” Brodkorb said.
MacDonald seeks damages in excess of $50,000, removal of the photo and an order directing Mann and Brodkorb to “cease their wrongful conduct,” among other remedies.
The case was initially filed in both Dakota County and Ramsey County. The Dakota County case, which MacDonald said was filed in error, was dismissed on Aug. 20.
It will proceed in Ramsey County District Court on Sept. 10 in the courtroom of Judge Richard H. Kyle.