For Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, the changes happened slowly.
First, there was a slight tremor in his hands that was especially bad in the morning. “It got so bad, I couldn’t drink a cup of coffee without a straw,” he said. “It started to get so vexatious, I had to do something.”
Three months ago, Orput, 65, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a nervous-system disorder that affects movement. “I didn’t really need the formal diagnosis,” he said. “I already knew. I had been putting it off. I just figured if I ignored it, it would go away.”
During a news conference at the Minnesota Department of Corrections in St. Paul on July 19, 2018, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, right, speaks on the killing of Corrections Officer Joseph Gomm by an inmate at Stillwater Prison. Behind Orput is then-Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
Orput shared the news publicly in July when he announced that he was stepping down from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. “My doctors said, ‘If you can find ways to lessen some of your stress, that would be a really great idea,’” he said. “One thing that was pretty stressful was my work on the commission. I couldn’t really cut back. You’re either in or out, and so I said ‘out.’”
Orput, Washington County Attorney since 2011, also has cut back on pro bono legal work for the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, and has temporarily quit speaking at area service clubs and churches, though the pandemic slowed that down.
Orput, who ran unopposed in 2014 and 2018, has not yet decided whether he will run again in 2022.
“I’m thinking I still have more work to do,” he said. “I’ve got a couple of projects I’d like to see through. If I get those things done, I’d make room for one of my star prosecutors, but right now, I really haven’t made a decision. The Parkinson’s really hasn’t interfered with what I do, although some mornings, I have a real hard time typing emails to people, but I can work around that.”
Orput’s corner office on the top floor of the Law Enforcement Center in Stillwater is decorated with posters of John Wayne and English rock band Joy Division; a collection of hats from local police departments; and photos of Tun Tavern, the birthplace of the U.S. Marine Corps, and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. A framed quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. — “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars” — is on his bookshelf; the W.B. Yeats line — “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy” — is taped next to his computer.
Orput is known for his straight talk and occasional profanity. “I’ve been accused of being too direct,” he said. “I just get to the point. Maybe that’s a detriment, I don’t know. Some people appreciate it. Other people like the prevaricating, ‘heretofore,’ ‘notwithstanding,’ ‘the latter.’ I’m not that way.”
Prior to being elected Washington County attorney in 2010, Orput worked as a prosecutor in the Hennepin County attorney’s office, served as general counsel to the Minnesota Department of Corrections and worked for the Minnesota Attorney general’s office. He’s also been an assistant attorney in Mille Lacs, Carver, Washington and Dakota counties.
Orput, a former high school history teacher, is a 1988 graduate of William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. He has three children and lives in Stillwater with his wife, Tami, and two rescue dogs, Buck and Maggie.
Orput recently sat down with the Pioneer Press to talk about his diagnosis, Derek Chauvin and the 1927 Yankees. The transcript is edited for clarity and conciseness.
Question: You recently decided not to file felony charges against House DFL candidate John Thompson, who last month shouted expletives within earshot of neighbors and children at a protest outside Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll’s house in Hugo.
Answer: People say, ‘Well, Thompson threatened to burn down Hugo.’ He didn’t threaten to burn down Hugo. I’ve watched the video at least 10 times. It’s not a terroristic threat. He said, “You think we give a (expletive) about burning Hugo down?” He didn’t say, “I want to burn Hugo down” or “Let’s burn Hugo down.” He said he didn’t care if it did. I can’t charge somebody for having a terrible opinion. It was frustrating because things have become so divisive now. You’re either on one side or the other, and there’s no nuance, and there’s no logic. It’s all emotion. That causes me some concern. It happened at (former Minneapolis police officer Derek) Chauvin’s house (in Oakdale) where it was all over the internet that they were going to burn his house down. Poor Sheriff (Dan) Starry had 150 cops over there for a week. It’s the times. It’s so divisive right now.
Q: Let’s talk about Chauvin and the killing of George Floyd. What would you have done?
A: George Floyd died on Memorial Day. A few days later, (Minnesota Public Radio host) Tom Crann had me on and asked me what I would do if I was prosecutor. I was hot; I was upset. I thought, “Why aren’t they charged?” I understand you don’t make swift decisions, but in that case, I saw what happened, and I thought, “I don’t need a lot of witness statements.” I saw it myself. All I needed was a preliminary autopsy, I would have charged the four of them with second-degree unintentional murder aiding and abetting, and I’d stand in front of a jury and try my heart out because I believe that’s what happened, and I believe I could prove it.
Q: Will you be helping prosecute the case?
A: There was some talk between (Hennepin County Attorney) Mike Freeman and (Minnesota) Attorney General (Keith) Ellison about me jumping in to help, but it just coincided with my Parkinson’s diagnosis. My wife is going, “Don’t you dare,” which makes me want to do it even more. I’ll just help from the sidelines. I’d love to try that case. I would. … I don’t have that time. I’ve got too much to do right here.
Q: One of the things you’re doing is prosecuting Chauvin and his wife, Kellie May Chauvin, on nine counts of felony tax fraud.
A: Nothing angers me more than people who don’t pay their fair share. It deprives others from having those funds to do other things.
Q: You were one of several Minnesota county attorneys who sued opioid manufacturers for their marketing and distribution of narcotics. How is that going?
A: I want to do more. I’ve several police departments around the county that have what I call a “no wrong door policy.” Anybody who wants opioid treatment can walk through the door. You’d think it would be counter-intuitive for a drug addict to go to the police department, but like I told the sheriff and others, “You serve and protect.” … Sheriff Starry was wonderful. He got on board right away. We’ve brought in community corrections and public health and community services, partnered up with Hazelden. We’re hustling grant money; the dream is still alive. If your son or daughter or you or anybody wants to get off the merry-go-round, and you don’t know how to navigate it, walk through the door.
Q: I understand you are expanding that to include people with mental-health issues.
A: That’s the other thing I have been working on: getting the mentally ill out of our jail and into a place where they can get treated. Once the state hospitals started closing, and they had a so-called community-based model, many, many people were left behind. The cops end up getting those calls that are really a mental-health cry for help, and those often turn bad. I’ve always felt terrible that the cops get those calls. We haven’t trained them how to deal with that effectively.
Q: One of your priorities has been prosecuting sex traffickers. How has COVID affected that work?
A: It has really caused us some problems. We used to be able to set up sting operations in hotels, and that has gone away. I was just briefed this morning on a juvenile being trafficked out of the Woodbury area — the work is still there. When you get these cases, they’re just tragic. Lately, we’ve been hitting these … massage parlors … run by women who don’t speak English or very, very little. We look at it as labor trafficking. They’re being exploited, working 12 to 14 hours a day, to give sex to men who come in. We go after the people who own those and run them.
Q: What other initiatives are you working on?
A: I’ve been working on bail reform for about a year. I tried to do it statewide, but now I’ve decided the best way to do it is in Washington County. It’s always bothered me. Let’s say some guy gets arrested for domestic assault, and we’re concerned about letting him out, and the judge says, “Well, post $5,000 bail, and then he can get out.” Well, what did that do for the victim’s safety? Nothing. All it is is a cash surety. What about the guy who doesn’t have $5,000? Well, they sit in jail. I’m not sure that’s fair. I’m not sure money has anything to do with public safety, certainly not with domestic assault, and that, of course, has disparate impacts on who’s sitting in the jail: those who can’t make bail, particularly the poor and minorities. … It’s going to be a change.
Q: How would you describe your management style?
A: I always wanted to build a kibbutz, and I think I have. I’m really serious. When I first got into that office, I watched attorneys walk by the copier and hand their legal assistant things saying, “Make me a couple of copies of this,” or “Go find my files.” I said, “That’s not what we do here. … We’re all in this together.” … One thing I am always proud of is that when we have an opening, I get bombarded by other prosecutors … I’ve had people from Hennepin, Dakota, Anoka, all over the place come — seasoned prosecutors, and it’s been wonderful. I feel like I had the chance to build up the 1927 Yankees lineup, and I think I’ve got it now.
Q: Tell me about the baseball bat.
A: It’s called the Heavy Hitters Club. When someone wins a jury trial, they sign a bat, and we take a picture of them swinging the bat. It sounds sappy and trite, but it’s become a real huge motivator. We’re averaging 45 to 50 jury trials a year, which is where we should be for a county our size. And if someone wins a criminal trial, they have to bring in donuts — the good ones.
Q: You served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1973 to 1976. What made you decide to join?
A: A buddy and I hitchhiked to Alaska the summer after we graduated from high school (to work at a sawmill in Haines) and then hitchhiked back. … On the way up to Alaska, we were picked up on the Alaska Highway by a guy who had just gotten back from Vietnam. He had a little Datsun pickup truck, and everything he owned in it, and he was on his way to going off the grid. We spent about five days camping with him on the Alaska Highway. By the time we got done, we said, “Let’s go in the Marines.” So we did.