City hires lawyer to aid ongoing extortion probe

Shira Kantor

Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton announced Thursday the city has hired an outside attorney to aid in an investigation of Minneapolis’ regulatory services. The investigation comes on the heels of former City Council Member Brian Herron’s guilty plea to federal extortioncharges.

Herron resigned from his post Tuesday after he admitted to accepting $10,000 from a business owner in the 8th Ward – the area he represented. In exchange, Herron promised to lobby fellow council members on behalf of the business owner, Selwin Ortega, who owns 10 Las Americas supermarkets in the metro area.

Herron’s admission incited concern among some Minneapolis citizens that other council members might also be involved in illegal collaborations or racketeering, prompting the mayor to call for an internal investigation of City Hall.

“I think the investigation is a good idea,” Council President Jackie Cherryhomes said.

After conferring with both the U.S. attorney and the city attorney, Cherryhomes, along with Sayles Belton, determined an investigation independent from the federal extortion inquiry was necessary.

Sayles Belton appointed Minneapolis attorney Don Lewis to head the investigation. Lewis was a key player in the University’s 1999 probe into academic misconduct in the men’s basketball program.

In a press conference Wednesday, Council Member Joe Biernat attempted to allay any fears of corruption, insisting Herron had not lobbied any other council members.

Council Member Paul Ostrow said people shouldn’t judge the council based on Herron’s actions.

“Anytime something like this happens, it’s predictable that people are going to look at the whole organization. But I really hope that people are careful about that.”

“We’re scrambling right along with everybody else here to find out exactly what took place,” he added. “But I see no information that leads me to believe that this is anything other than a serious criminal offense by one person on the council.”

Hennepin County commissioner and mayoral candidate Mark Stenglein called on the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office on Wednesday to conduct an investigation of the Minneapolis Inspections Department. Ross Corson, spokesman for the County Attorney’s Office, said his office will aid in the federal investigation but will not conduct one of its own.

According to the federal indictment, Herron approached at least two other businesses with similar requests.

A recorded June 25 conversation between Herron and Ortega confirmed Herron demanded the money, and on June 27, a secret video camera taped the transaction.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the FBI, had been secretly monitoring Herron since 1998, when Ortega informed the FBI that Herron had demanded a $7,000 loan.

Jeanne Cooney, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Herron will be sentenced upon completion of the investigative report which should be ready in two to three months.

Herron was not available for comment.

 

Shira Kantor welcomes comments at [email protected]