FBI seeks information on council member plumbers union ties

Shira Kantor

Federal investigators have requested information regarding Minneapolis City Council member Joe Biernat’s relationship with the local plumbers union, as well as the records of plumbing work done for various Minneapolis City Council members.

The FBI also requested information pertaining to the city’s Licenses and Inspections department. The information will be presented before a federal grand jury Tuesday.

Bill Figner of Figner Plumbing said two federal agents approached him early in the week, asking for contract and permit records relating to work he had done in certain elected officials’ homes during the last four years.

Figner, who is also on a Minneapolis plumbers licensing board, said the agents told him that if he produced the records he would not be asked to appear before the grand jury hearing. Figner said he complied.

“I really do not know why they’re looking at plumbers’ records and the union and all that,” Figner said. “I don’t know what they’re suspicious of. I guess I feel in my own mind it might be a continuation of what came out of the woodwork on the Brian Herron thing last summer.”

Former 8th Ward council member Brian Herron resigned last July after admitting to extorting money from a local business owner in exchange for regulatory leniency. He is currently serving a one-year prison term.

Biernat is chairman of the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, which has authority over licenses and inspections.

His attorney, Janice Symchych of Minneapolis-based Dorsey & Whitney, issued a statement Thursday that she and Biernat are in contact with federal authorities and intend to fully comply.

“This is not ‘the next Brian Herron case’ to come out of Minneapolis City Hall Ö there simply is no act of public corruption at stake,” Symchych wrote in her statement.

Prompted by Herron’s misdeeds, federal agents launched an investigation into Minneapolis’ regulatory and inspections departments. Following Herron’s confession, the city also hired independent counsel to conduct a self-investigation.

Corey Rubenstein, a partner in Stetler & Duffy – the Chicago law firm that recently concluded the investigation – said federal agents had not contacted him, nor did he have any reason to believe the search had anything to do with his inquiry.

The FBI also sought information about three of Biernat’s properties, according to a report in the Star Tribune. Symchych’s statement made no mention of the properties.

Karen Bailey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said attorneys could not comment on any possible investigation.

Mayor R.T. Rybak had no information on the federal inquiry into Biernat or the plumbing union. He released a statement Thursday assuring the city’s intent to cooperate with federal authorities.

“We are already working on a package of ethics and regulatory reforms to ensure there is neither the appearance nor reality of conflict of interest in how the city conducts its business,” Rybak said in the statement.

Shira Kantor welcomes comments at [email protected]