Taken For a Ride

A trail of audits and an internal investigation suggest there may have been millions of dollars worth of loss and theft at the bus company over the years. Dick Lindgren says he found out the hard way that his bosses didn't want to know.

After Wallace was placed on leave, Lindgren claims he found himself "immediately and totally out of the loop" at MCTO. People would stop talking when he came into the room. He says he was excluded from closed-door meetings between MCTO managers and police personnel under his supervision. On January 20 of this year, Lindgren was handed a terse one-page memo informing him that he was being reduced to the rank of lieutenant and was to take his personal belongings from the investigative office, turn in his vehicle and keys, and report for street patrol duty. When Lindgren went back the next day, a Saturday, his office locks and codes had already been changed.

Feeling depressed, he went to his doctor, who referred him to a psychologist. In a three-page handwritten letter on April 5, he announced that effective June 2, 1995, he would resign and retire from MCTO "because of the wrongful actions taken against me by the Department." He followed that up by serving a complaint on April 10 in preparation for his civil suit against Sather and the Met Council.

"Coming back at them [with a lawsuit] is not really my style, but my honor and integrity are at stake," Lindgren says. "I did absolutely nothing wrong. Plus, I think I owe it to the real whistleblowers, the average workers [at MCTO] who worked their hind-ends off and turned to myself and Paul Wallace to do something about what is going on."

The fallout from the MCTO police investigation did not represent the only time in recent years the bus company has been informed of questionable conduct or practices in its ranks only to ignore the critics.

Critics of the way local metropolitan government is structured often claim it to be a breeding ground for political patronage and influence peddling, specifically in the relationship between the governor's office, which makes most of the appointments, and the three huge bureaucracies that dominate the process: the airports commission, the waste-control commission, and MCTO. "I call it the industrial development complex," says State Representative Myron Orfield (DFL-Minneapolis). "Between those agencies you've got more than $800 million in public monies and not a single elected official directly accountable for them. There are huge public works projects resulting in huge contracts; development contracts, legal contracts, all kinds of contracts. So these agencies become a logical place for a governor, regardless of which party is in office, to land political plums and make politically oriented appointments."

In a February 1993 letter to then-Met Council Chairperson Dottie Rietow, MTC commissioner Allyson Hartle raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest in the way the MTC contracted for legal services--specifically those with Popham Haik Schnobrich Kaufman, Mike Christenson's former employer and the bus company's principal law firm; and Larkin Hoffman Daly & Lindgren, MTC General Counsel Tom Weaver's old firm. ("Prior to his employment at the MTC," wrote Hartle, "Larkin Hoffman did not do business with the MTC.") She pointed out that the MTC wasn't following federal mandates that required competitive bidding for contracts, and asked Rietow and the Met Council to develop a policy for legal contracting by metropolitan agencies. The Council apparently did not follow up on her request.

Asked recently about the potential conflict, Christenson says when he joined the MTC he knew "it would create a problem with perception," and decided never to review MTC billings with law firms and to allow all communication regarding MTC legal contracts to be held between MTC administrators and the board of commissioners. He also directed another law firm to offer a legal opinion on the matter. The opinion, rendered by Faegre & Benson, was that under the parameters set up by Christenson, there would be no conflict of interest. In fact, Christenson says proudly, "A number of different law firms were brought in" to contract for legal services with the MTC. The Popham Haik contract and two Larkin Hoffman contracts were among 20 contracts cited by federal auditors as having "compliance deficiencies" on the part of the MTC in April 1993.

Hartle and two fellow commissioners, Robert Mairs and Christine Dean, say that in the wake of the federal audit, the board was moving to put the bus company's legal contracts out for competitive bidding. But they never got the chance. In 1993, a committee known as the State Advisory Council on Metropolitan Governance was created by the Legislature for the purpose of helping to reorganize metropolitan government. The advisory council subsequently recommended abolishing the board of commissioners and placing the MTC (reorganized as the MCTO) under the direct control of the Metropolitan Council. One of the citizens Governor Arne Carlson appointed to the council was Wayne Popham of Popham Haik.

Popham did not participate in the council's final vote; asked whether his mere presence on the council constituted a possible conflict of interest, Popham counters that the new organizational scheme could have cost his firm business if the Met Council decided not to use Popham Haik for the legal work of the restructured bus company. He needn't have worried: MCTO paid Popham Haik $771,000 in 1994, an increase of more than $300,000 over the amount the firm billed the bus company in 1993. Popham Haik's share of MCTO's total legal costs also rose, from 82 percent to 91 percent. In an interview last week, MCTO director of finance Robert Thompson said that MCTO's legal contracts still are not competitively bid.

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