Minneapolis looks outside metro area for new investigator

Shira Kantor

City Attorney Jay Heffern and members of the City Council addressed the temporary halt in Minneapolis’ internal investigation in a meeting Thursday, tentatively deciding on a new criterion for investigator selection – geographic location.

The investigation of Minneapolis’ regulatory services – prompted by former City Council Member Brian Herron’s admission last week to extorting money from 8th Ward business owners – hit another roadblock Tuesday when attorney Don Lewis withdrew from his post as head investigator due to criticism of his political ties to the mayor.

Because it is likely a Minneapolis attorney might have political leanings toward some city official, council members directed Heffern to look for Lewis’ replacement outside of the seven-county metropolitan area.

The previous selection process for garnering outside counsel involved five basic measures by which the city attorney could evaluate candidates and make a decision.

A pool of 18 law firms comprises the city’s legal services panel, which is where Heffern would normally turn for legal support. The law firm of Halleland, Lewis, Nilan, Sipkins & Johnson – in which Lewis is a partner – is among them.

All 18 firms are located in the Twin Cities metro area, which means Heffern might have to discount the city’s entire legal services panel to find a replacement.

The heightened awareness of party lines in an election year has forced Heffern to consider political allegiances in his search for an investigator.

Council Member Barbara Johnson – after expressing dissatisfaction at the length of time it took for the issue to come before the council – said she thought counsel from outside the Twin Cities would be the least suspect.

“Nobody’s going to have a lawn sign; nobody’s going to have had a fund-raiser for a Minneapolis candidate (outside of the seven-county area),” she said.

In response, Heffern spoke about constitutional protection, saying the proposal begged the question of whether such regulations are lawful.

“May a governmental entity impose as a condition of entering into a governmental contract the requirement that the contractor not exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech and free association?” he said.

Council Member Joan Campbell agreed, saying it was not only unconstitutional but also illegal and immoral to consider political ties.

“I remember a time in our history when there were chilling things happening,” Campbell said. “One of the things that comes to mind is, ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?'”

Council Member Barret Lane said he doesn’t think Campbell was right in comparing the past week’s debate with the historic government interrogations.

“I think the charges of McCarthyism were outrageous and hyperbolic,” he said after the meeting. “I don’t think anybody’s declaring a witch hunt.”

Lane said he wanted to see a truly independent candidate take Lewis’ place.

“This at least has the benefit of getting some distance,” he said.

Campbell suggested having a state auditor conduct the investigation, but Heffern said in the past state auditors have declined similar requests.

Council President Jackie Cherryhomes said she doesn’t necessarily want to see the five criteria amended but that Heffern might not be able to find an attorney in this area otherwise.

“I’m saying in this particular case, look outside of this geographic area for a firm that can meet the criteria in terms of expertise,” she said.

But Lane noted several firms based outside Minneapolis have offices in the Twin Cities.

“This may not entirely solve the problem,” he said.

Council Member Joe Biernat said he doesn’t think the city’s self-investigation is necessary.

“I believe we ought to let the federal government (handle the investigation),” Biernat said.

He added if Minneapolis were to go ahead with the internal investigation, “it might be fruitful” to consider help from the attorney general.

Heffern eventually agreed to the geographic boundaries amendment, though he reminded the council of the time and monetary constraints that would accompany an outstate search.

He said it was impossible to gauge a timeline for either the selection process of a new investigator or the investigation itself.

Campbell said she would add a motion approving the council’s suggestion to today’s meeting agenda.