Biernat pleads innocent

Tom Ford

Minneapolis City Council member Joe Biernat pleaded innocent Friday to federal charges that he appointed a former union manager to a city licensing board in exchange for plumbing work done in his home.

Biernat was charged with five counts, including extortion, aiding in theft from a labor organization and making a false statement to the FBI.

The indictment alleges Biernat received $2,700 worth of improvements on his property in 1999. It states the money for the work was embezzled from a local plumbers’ union by its former manager, Thomas Martin, whom Biernat voted to appoint to the Minneapolis Plumbers Examining Board.

Biernat’s trial will begin July 1 in St. Paul.

Biernat, who represents the city’s 3rd Ward, said he will continue serving on the council.

Several council members said they’re reserving judgment on Biernat but believe publicity surrounding the charges could foster improvements in city processes.

Council member Scott Benson said for now he is presuming Biernat’s innocence. But he said improved ethics training for city employees, particularly council members, could reduce improper actions.

Benson said incoming council members currently go through a training session, which he said is lacking significant ethics instruction, with the city attorney.

“I think if you make it clear what’s expected of folks in a number of circumstances that they will probably err on the side of doing the right thing,” Benson said.

A task force formed after Mayor R.T. Rybak took office is working on a city ethics code.

Benson – a member of the task force – said he expects the group to present its recommendations to the council in July.

Council president Paul Ostrow said he will propose eliminating the city trade licensing boards – including the one for plumbers – at the next council meeting.

Ostrow said the boards are unnecessary and have the potential for abuse by members.

In their place, he said, the city could employ a standardized testing process for licensure.

He said his proposal is not a response to the Biernat charges, but said the indictment would bring a heightened focus to the boards’ effectiveness.