Duffy releases inquiry findings

by Shira Kantor

No widespread corruption exists within Minneapolis government, Chicago attorney Joe Duffy informed a City Council committee Monday.

But the government’s structure could use some scrutiny, said Duffy, who cautioned it might easily lend itself to impropriety.

The attorney’s investigation into Minneapolis’ inspections and regulatory services came on the heels of the arrest and resignation of former City Council member Brian Herron, who pleaded guilty in July to federal extortion charges.

Federal agents videotaped Herron in June as he accepted $10,000 from local business owner Selwin Ortega in exchange for regulatory leniency. Concerns surfaced afterward that other city departments might be involved in similar dealings.

Duffy and his partner in the investigation, attorney Corey Rubenstein, acknowledged Herron attempted to sway officials to favor Ortega, but he said Herron was unsuccessful.

The attorneys interviewed more than 70 city employees, as well as both Herron and Ortega, but said Basim Sabri – a businessman Herron helped implicate in bribery – declined to be questioned.

Sabri was indicted on federal bribery charges in August, but his case was thrown out last month after a judge declared the law Sabri was charged under was unconstitutional. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is expected to continue its pursuit of the case.

Duffy said Herron’s conduct “appears to be an abberation” and was not illustrative of the vast majority of city officials. Both attorneys said elected officials and city employees cooperated and showed integrity.

But the Herron-Ortega exchange exemplifies what Duffy characterized as a potential for improper influence in the city’s governing structure.

Duffy spoke of a “cultured attitude on the importance of ward power,” saying constituents often believed their ward representative could and would intervene on their behalf in regulatory issues.

He said the problem is exacerbated by the fact that City Council members appoint and approve many of the city’s high-ranking officials – such as the city coordinator, the assessor and the police and fire chiefs. Those employees – as well as inspectors – might feel pressure to act on City Council members’ inclinations, Duffy said.

“Virtually all the inspectors we interviewed reportedly gave priority to requests from council members over those from the public at large,” Duffy said. But very few inspectors reported feeling pressure from City Council members to act inappropriately, he said.

Council President Paul Ostrow said City Council members “have to really be conscious of when we’re talking to staff that they ought not feel pressure.”

Instead of the current system, in which City Council members are constituents’ first point of contact, Duffy suggested creating a constituent services office to handle regulatory complaints and inquiries.

The attorneys also questioned the “relatively narrow” and slightly vague contribution disclosure requirements currently in place for council members. As is, the $10,000 Herron received from Ortega could have been mischaracterized as a gift rather than a loan.

And they recommended implementing a more coherent form of ethics training, which they said the city lacks.

“Obviously, no system of government can completely prevent abuses such as Mr. Herron’s,” Duffy said, but Minneapolis is “truly an outstanding city comprised of outstanding personnel.”

The attorneys will release a detailed report sometime this week, Duffy said. He estimated the report to be shorter than 100 pages.

Shira Kantor welcomes comments at
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