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.

"Going over that transcript," says Hill, "it is clear to me that Mr. Heffelfinger was trying to disparage my client, in a meeting with the presiding judge that I was not allowed to attend. It took me three months of emotional bloodletting just to get a copy of the transcript. Believe me, it is not a good thing to challenge a judge, but I felt I had no choice on this," says Hill, whose accusations of bias against Fitzpatrick over Heffelfinger's role in the case compelled the judge to recuse himself. "It's not just his time with the judge," Hill says. "Heffelfinger has been able to conduct in-person interviews with a lot of potential witnesses too, representing himself as a special investigator and a former U.S. Attorney. It can create a chilling effect on my case."

"Chilling" is an apt description for the affidavit filed by Marne Johnson, an executive secretary with MCTO, who claims that Heffelfinger's investigators subjected her to "numerous misleading questions... designed to find out whether Dick Lindgren had ever committed an impropriety while he was employed as a police captain in charge of internal affairs investigations at MCTO." [Emphasis hers.] In the process of defending Lindgren, Johnson says in her affidavit that she became "convinced" that "neither Mr. Heffelfinger nor his investigators were interested in conducting any criminal investigation of any kind other than one designed to discredit Mr. Lindgren himself."

Then Johnson's affidavit drops two bombshells. First, it swears that a former MCTO employee whom she cites by name told her that MCTO General Manager Tom Sather and acting MCTO Police Chief David Hubenette instructed the employee to "rifle through" the desks of Lindgren and Chief Paul Wallace in July 1994, removing any documents "that would incriminate or otherwise embarrass MCTO administrative personnel or union employees." According to Johnson's statement, the employee also told her he destroyed "numerous documents" at Hubenette's request.

The Johnson affidavit goes on to say that two days after speaking with Heffelfinger's investigators, she was arrested by transit police in the MCTO lunchroom and taken to Hennepin County Jail, where she was locked behind bars for eight hours over a traffic violation that she claims had already been resolved. The statement further claims that she has "no doubt" that her workplace arrest was "designed to send a signal to other employees that if they didn't 'chill out' and refuse to provide testimony as to their own firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing at MCTO, they will suffer a fate similar to mine." Johnson's attorney says she was subsequently suspended from work for allegedly failing to demonstrate adequate insurance coverage on her automobile. (The Met Council refused to comment on her work status.)

"I am appalled by what Heffelfinger has done," says State Senator Phil Riveness (DFL-Bloomington), the current vice chair of the Legislative Audit Commission. "It is totally inappropriate to have a private political operative investigating state agencies when we have independent public investigators able to do the same thing." Riveness claims that Heffelfinger also tried to take over an investigation into theft allegations at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry before the legislative auditor intervened. A spokesman for Labor and Industry says that Heffelfinger was asked to review the allegations to determine whether the legislative auditor should have been contacted, and that Heffelfinger facilitated the auditor's inquiry. Nevertheless, his brief role at Labor and Industry contributes to the impression that Heffelfinger is the governor's man on the scene whenever a potential scandal might demand damage control.

Heffelfinger maintains his critics have it all wrong. "Mr. Hill has made an assumption that [the report] won't make his client look good, because he hasn't even seen it," he says. "For him or anybody to be challenging the findings of a report they haven't seen underscores the fact that [the challenges are] being done for partisan purposes. Now you guys can write what you want, but I think you need to know that you may end up looking kind of silly. Eventually this report will be released and when it does and you've printed a whole bunch of stories that imply there has been some kind of--I'll use the word--a coverup here, and when you find out the facts that are in it, you are going to look kind of silly. I find it ironic that there are a lot of allegations being made about something that nobody has seen."

State Senator John Marty, who authored the whistleblower legislation that is a basis for Lindgren's suit, is one of the people making allegations. "This is such a classic whistleblower case. You always think people are going to learn and suffer a little embarrassment instead of going after the whistleblower, but people never do learn. I don't see any incentive Lindgren would have in doing any more than reporting what he has found. And that Wallace has been out of work more than a year is outrageous: If he is incompetent, fire him; otherwise, why is he not doing his job? Curt Johnson said numerous times this summer that he wanted a thorough, independent investigation of this, and now they are not only hiding behind attorney-client privilege, but just the fact that Heffelfinger is their attorney raises questions about whether they are more interested in saving themselves from embarrassment or getting to the bottom of this. It's kind of like Watergate--not that big a deal until people start covering up."

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