After criticism for his ties to Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton poured in from Minneapolis citizens and officials, attorney Don Lewis announced Tuesday he will no longer head the city’s self-investigation.
City attorney Jay Heffern selected Lewis last Wednesday to head an investigation of the city’s regulatory services after former City Council Member Brian Herron pleaded guilty to federal extortion charges July 17.
Sayles Belton and City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes deemed an internal investigation, independent of the federal inquiry, necessary after meeting with the U.S. district attorney and the Hennepin County attorney last Wednesday.
Lewis has supported the mayor in the past, donating a total of $325 to her since 1993 in addition to speaking on her behalf at the May DFL convention. Earlier this year his firm, Halleland, Lewis, Nilan, Sipkins & Johnson, conducted a fund-raiser for her campaign which raised $1,625.
Lewis withdrew Monday, but the statement was not released until Tuesday.
Lewis said while he believed he would have been able to conduct an objective investigation, he would nonetheless withdraw to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“I began to wonder if it would do any good for me, for the city attorney or for the city if I put time and effort and expense into a significant and sensitive investigation only to have people criticize it in the end because of some perceived lack of impartiality,” Lewis said.
“In the end, not only should an investigation be fair and impartial … it’s even more important that the investigation be perceived as fair and impartial,” he said. “It’s probably even more important in an election year, where perceptions are even more critical.”
Lewis said he did not feel his contributions to the mayor should have been an issue in the investigation.
Sayles Belton said she wanted to assure the public the investigation will continue and the city will fully cooperate with the U.S. attorney in the federal investigation.
“I certainly accept his decision to withdraw, and I actually thank him for his willingness to accept the assignment,” she said.
Sayles Belton lamented the introduction of election-year politics into the investigation, but said Lewis’ decision to withdraw was an example of his integrity.
She added she did not ask Lewis to resign from the post and pointed out she did not appoint him in the first place.
Sayles Belton also said Lewis had a fund-raiser for mayoral candidate Council Member Lisa McDonald this year and asked whether political leanings should be a factor in selecting an attorney to head the investigation.
“If we’re going to introduce a political screen here, what’s the screen? Is it who knows the mayor or who knows the city council? Is it who’s a democrat or who’s a republican? Is it who made a contribution or who didn’t?” she said.
Lewis said his firm put the fund-raiser on and he does not support McDonald.
The mayor said she was not sure whether Heffern would look to legal firms outside Minneapolis for the next appointment but said the city attorney was granted permission to consider firms outside of the 18 on the city’s legal services panel.
Heffern said he thinks it is important to appoint another attorney in Lewis’ place as soon as possible and he would use the same criteria to select a new attorney he used when selecting Lewis.
The City Council will review the criteria in a meeting with the city attorney Thursday. Sayles Belton said the council will look at the possibility of including political affiliation as one of the criteria in an amended selection process – something the city attorney has not previously considered.
McDonald said she thought it was honorable of Lewis to have stepped down.
“Even if he did an exemplary job, people would still think there was a cloud over the investigation because of his relationship with the mayor,” she said.
R.T. Rybak, an Internet strategist who is also running for mayor, agreed with McDonald and said Sayles Belton was to blame for putting Lewis in the midst of a conflict of interest.
“She doesn’t understand the basic problem with having a tiny club trying to run a big city,” Rybak said. “She seems to only be comfortable with a small clique of insiders, while more than 300,000 of us stand on the outside, shut out.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, also a mayoral candidate, has recently been pressuring Sayles Belton to remove Lewis from his position as head of the investigation, citing Lewis’ political ties as a conflict of interest. He said he thinks Lewis did the right thing in withdrawing from the position.
“Clearly he heard the voices of the citizenry,” Stenglein said.
The federal investigation
The U.S. Attorney issued subpoenas for the inspections and licensing documents from three Minneapolis businessmen Friday, Heffern said.
Among them is Selwin Ortega, owner of several Las Americas supermarkets in the Twin Cities and the man who originally indicated to federal investigators that Herron had demanded money from him. The two others are used-car dealership owner Manouchehr Dousti and commercial developer Basim Sabri.
Jordan Kushner, Ortega’s lawyer, said he assumed the records were subpoenaed to aid in the federal investigation of the city. He did not expect Ortega himself to be subpoenaed.
“It’s common for the federal authorities when they do these investigations to do very broad subpoenas for documents,” Kushner said.
Heffern said the city turned over four boxes of documents to the U.S. attorney in compliance with the subpoenas on Tuesday.
He said no new subpoenas have been issued since Friday.
U.S. District Attorney Michael Ward said he could not comment on the subpoenas.
Shira Kantor welcomes comments at [email protected]