City’s extortion investigator pick draws criticism

by Shira Kantor

City officials and Minneapolis constituents are criticizing Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton for the appointment of attorney Don Lewis to organize the city’s self-investigation. Lewis has supported Sayles Belton’s mayoral campaigns.

Sayles Belton and City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes decided to investigate the city’s regulatory services independent of a federal inquiry into former Council Member Brian Herron’s actions. Herron admitted last week to extorting money from local businesses.

Herron resigned and withdrew his bid for re-election Tuesday evening.

City Attorney Jay Heffern recommended that Lewis head the city’s self-examination Wednesday.

Lewis has contributed $325 to Sayles Belton since 1993, said Randy Schubring, communications director for Sayles Belton’s current mayoral campaign.

Additionally, the law firm of Halleland, Lewis, Nilan, Sipkins & Johnson, in which Lewis is a partner, held a fund raiser for Sayles Belton in April, garnering $1,625 for the campaign.

Council Member Barret Lane said while he doesn’t question Lewis’ abilities as an attorney, he is concerned with the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“I would be more comfortable with someone else,” Lane said. “There just have to be other qualified attorneys who have not been involved in fund raising or open campaigning for any of the participants in this.”

But Schubring said the sizes of Lewis’ contributions have been negligible.

“It’s really a very small amount,” Schubring said, “He’s not a big-bucks funder for her campaign at all.”

Schubring noted Sayles Belton has had more than 6,000 contributors during her tenure in office, and Lewis and Sayles Belton had no direct personal connection.

Council Member Joan Campbell said she supported the decision to hire Lewis.

“You would be hard pressed to find a law firm in town that hadn’t contributed to one or the other of us,” she said. “And the amount of money that any individual can contribute to any campaign is so minimal that it certainly doesn’t buy influence in any way.”

She added that she thought if this were not an election year, no one would be questioning the appointment. “Everybody would be saying that this was a great choice,” she said.

R.T. Rybak, an Internet strategist and a mayoral candidate, said Lewis would make an excellent choice were it not for his ties to the mayor.

“The reality is he has been a very active player contributing to her, putting up lawn signs for her, and … at the Democratic convention, he was speaking for her on the rules committee,” Rybak said. “So he is hardly a neutral observer in this.”

Rybak added that although the decision to hire Lewis was the city attorney’s – not Sayles Belton’s – he thinks Sayles Belton should have moved for a new choice upon learning of the appointment.

“It is baffling to me that the mayor has not stepped in and had this nomination withdrawn,” Rybak said.

City coordinator Kathleen O’Brien said the city attorney follows strict guidelines in the selection process of any external counsel to the city, but campaign contributions are not something the city attorney would consider.

“There’s no constraint on the political activism or opinion of anyone who is hired by the city for a professional services contract,” O’Brien said. “They’re hired for their professional expertise.”

Both Schubring and O’Brien pointed out that Lewis’ firm also held a fund-raiser for another mayoral candidate – Council Member Lisa McDonald – before the April 30 fund-raiser for Sayles Belton.

O’Brien said Lewis will be paid $165 an hour.

Lewis was unable to be reached for comment.

O’Brien said it’s important to remember it was Heffern’s decision to hire Lewis, not Sayles Belton’s. However Schubring said Sayles Belton was not left out of the decision.

“(Heffern) put it to Council President Jackie Cherryhomes and the mayor, and they said that he sounds like a good candidate,” Schubring said. “So (Sayles Belton) did have a say, an approval process, in it.”

Cherryhomes would not comment on her role in the appointment but said Heffern will address the Ways and Means Committee today to discuss the pending investigation.

“The city attorney has the authority to hire (Lewis),” Cherryhomes said.

But Lane said he wondered if that decision shouldn’t have been made by a council committee rather than resting on the shoulders of just a few people.

“When we’re talking about things of this magnitude, it should be more than just the council president and the mayor deciding what’s going on,” Lane said.

The timing of Herron’s resignation also prompted questions from some Minneapolis officials and residents.

Hennepin County commissioner and mayoral candidate Mark Stenglein said he thought it was possible that information about Herron’s extortion and resignation was temporarily withheld from the public.

“It seems to be awfully coincidental that right before filings close the resignation comes out,” he said. “The question is: Who knew what and when did they know it?”

Stenglein said others might have filed a bid for council member had they known Herron would not be running.

Vickie Ann Brock, Herron’s aide, filed Herron’s candidacy moments before the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline.

Approximately an hour later, Herron announced his resignation.

Cherryhomes, whose current position as council president will be voted on by the city council, declined to comment on her role in Brock’s late entry in the race.

Herron was a known supporter of Cherryhomes.

The business of extortion

Manouchehr Dousti, who owns a used-car dealership on Chicago Avenue, last week countered Herron’s assertion to federal investigators that the $5,000 he gave Herron was a bribe.

“It wasn’t a bribe,” said Ron Meshbesher, Dousti’s lawyer. “He had nothing to bribe him for. And he wouldn’t have done it anyhow.”

Meshbesher said Saturday that Herron approached Dousti last October “crying like a baby.”

“He just felt sorry for the guy,” Meshbesher said. “(Dousti) had no problems with the city at the time.”

Meshbesher said Herron told Dousti he needed the money for funeral expenses in the death of his mother-in-law.

Dousti gave Herron $3,000 in cash and wrote a check for the remainder.

“I don’t think too many people give a bribe with a personal check,” Meshbesher said.

Neither Herron nor his attorney, Joe Friedberg, was available for comment.

Rybak said Herron’s guilty plea to the federal extortion charges underscores the need to monitor contributions to public officials.

“It reminds people that it is crucial that any business operating in Minneapolis should be able to be comfortable they’ll be treated fairly, no matter who they know, or who they’re giving money to,” Rybak said.