Local businessman Basim Sabri’s arrest and charging on three federal counts of bribery last Wednesday is only the latest piece of the puzzle.
The tumult in City Hall began this summer when former 8th Ward City Council Member Brian Herron’s admission to federal charges of extortion threw open the doors to both city and federal investigations of Minneapolis government.
The charges were made public July 17, when Herron tearfully announced his resignation and confessed to accepting $10,000 from local business owner Selwin Ortega in exchange for helping Ortega overcome inspection woes at several of his Las Americas supermarkets.
Ortega had been working with the FBI for nearly three years helping gather the necessary evidence to convict Herron.
Finally, on June 27, the transfer of a $10,000 bribe from Ortega to Herron was both video- and audiotaped, allowing federal agents to prosecute Herron.
As part of a plea agreement with the U.S. District Court, Herron went about his business among friends and colleagues while, over the following weeks, he worked with the bureau to tease out evidence to condemn Sabri.
Known among some colleagues for a roguish approach to business and penchant for stocking neighborhood meetings with supporters, Sabri was charged Aug. 21 – though it was kept a secret until his arrest Aug. 29 – with offering Herron a total of $95,000 in bribes, according to the federal indictment.
Sabri was released on bond and has said he plans to fight the district court. He was unavailable for comment.
Along with Sabri’s arrest came a glimpse of other possible corruption in City Hall. Transcripts of FBI-recorded conversations between the three men indicate Herron might not have been the only City Council member involved in illegal activities.
According to the federal affidavit, in an Aug. 29, 1999, conversation with Ortega, Sabri said, “I just gave another city councilman who’s very big, in an envelope like that, $3,000.”
Later Sabri added, “Then another thing, you can buy them, but they have to trust you … If you own business and property you’re going to have to have people like that on your payroll. That’s like the inspectors, you have to have them on your payroll.”
Sixth Ward Council Member Jim Niland said he didn’t know whom Sabri might have been referring to when he mentioned the $3,000 payment. Niland said he has never been offered, and has never taken, a bribe.
“(Sabri has) had projects in the 6th Ward that I’ve discussed with him,” Niland said. “But I’ve certainly given him no special favors or breaks.”
Council Member Paul Ostrow, who represents the 1st Ward, also said he did not know to which council member Sabri was referring, and Ostrow cautioned taking any of Sabri’s words as truth.
“Frankly, I think we ought to be careful not to assume that there is anybody,” Ostrow said. “It could just be boasting on (Sabri’s) part.”
Ostrow also said he has never been offered a bribe. He added that Herron has never lobbied him on behalf of any businessmen – a concern that surfaced after Herron’s confession.
“Brian … certainly did not lobby on behalf of Mr. Ortega,” Ostrow said of a meeting regarding one of Ortega’s properties. Ostrow added that he felt “abused by (Herron) in the process.”
“The idea that you’re working in good faith with one of your colleagues and other council members on an issue at a time when that council member is being offered, and is in fact accepting, bribes and illegal inducements, there’s a real feeling of violation,” Ostrow said.
According to the federal
affidavit, Sabri also encouraged Ortega to make large campaign contributions to those council members he thought might be helpful to Ortega. Sabri told Ortega he could donate more than the $300 election-year limit if Ortega had friends and family members give money and then paid them back, a tactic Sabri said he often used himself.
Specifically, Sabri advised contributing to Herron – who, at the time of the conversation in late February, was still planning to run for re-election – and Barb Lickness, a candidate in the 6th Ward aiming to fill Niland’s seat. Both Sabri and Ortega have business or commercial developments in the two wards.
Sabri told Ortega a few days later that Sabri meant to raise $27,000 for Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who he said would appoint him to two committees.
But Randy Schubring, a spokesman for Sayles Belton, said the last time Sabri contributed to the mayor was in 1993, when he gave her $85 in two separate donations. He added that for Sabri to be appointed to any committees he would have to apply – something Sabri has not done – and the City Council would make those appointments, not Sayles Belton.
Sabri and the U
Sabri’s legal problems can be traced back to far before he began dealing with the City Council. In 1985, Sabri, then a University student and president of the Minnesota International Student Association, was suspended for a semester after the Campus Committee on Student Behavior found him guilty of misappropriating MISA funds for personal benefit.
According to an article in a 1985 issue of The Minnesota Daily, Sabri used $354.50 in MISA dollars “for a party at the Amfac Hotel.” The article also said Sabri fraudulently used MISA funds for personal gain during his 1984 all-campus election campaign.
However, the CCSB reversed an earlier decision made by the University’s Special Counseling Office charging Sabri with taking MISA financial and membership records without authorization.
Shortly after the federal investigation was launched, Sayles Belton and Council President Jackie Cherryhomes decided an independent city inquiry into Minneapolis’ regulatory services was necessary.
Unlike its federal counterpart, the local investigation has yet to get off the ground.
Just days after City Attorney Jay Heffern selected attorney Don Lewis to head the inquiry, the process halted when the public questioned Lewis’ ties to the mayor.
Lewis had contributed to the mayor’s campaigns and had a lawn sign supporting Sayles Belton in his yard. On July 24, after Lewis heard of the doubts, he stepped down from the post, though he defended his impartiality.
After discussing the issue with the City Council, Heffern refined his selection criteria to mandate that the investigating attorney come from outside the seven-county metro area to avoid any conflict of interest, real or perceived.
Today, the investigation remains stagnant as Heffern has yet to select Lewis’ replacement. City Coordinator Kathy O’Brien said Sunday that the wait shouldn’t be much longer.
“My understanding is that Jay had come up with a short list and that he plans on talking to the
council and mayor about that, but he has not made an appointment yet,” she said.
Shira Kantor encourages comments at [email protected]