By CP Staff
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Chris Parker
By Jesse Marx
By John Baichtal
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Jesse Marx
By Olivia LaVecchia
The burglary began shortly before five o'clock on the morning of February 25, 1991. A U-Haul truck pulled up to the overhaul base on Cleveland Avenue North in St. Paul where the Metropolitan Transit Commission repaired its vehicles. One of the building's doors opened from the inside to let the burglars in; two men got out of the truck and rolled four large tires--public property bought and paid for by bus fares and tax dollars--up to the back of the truck, hoisted them inside, and drove away.
The entire incident was taped by a security camera monitoring the site, but the quality of the surveillance video was too poor to capture the license plate on the U-Haul or the faces of the men. While bus company police officers began trying to track down the registration of the truck, they sent the tape off to the FBI to see whether it could be digitally enhanced. Weeks later, both had come up empty. Nobody was ever caught or charged with the crime.
There is evidence to suggest that the incident, far from being an aberration, was typical of a culture of laxity and corruption that has existed at the bus company for many years. Since 1980, a long line of auditors has noted the company's chronic troubles in matters of purchasing and inventory control. Through the years employees have stepped forward with warnings that their coworkers were blatantly stealing company property and that managers knew about it and did nothing to stop it; the likely cost to bus riders and other taxpayers runs into the millions of dollars.
Critics also charge that the transit operation has sometimes handled its contracts in ways that violate federal regulations. The auditors, citizen critics, and employees further charge that the bus company has not responded effectively to their complaints, either filing them away with vague assurances that something would be done or, in some cases, taking steps to demote or remove the whistleblowers.
In April of this year, former police captain Richard Lindgren filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Metropolitan Council (which has overseen operations at the former MTC since a 1994 reorganization that changed its name to Metropolitan Council Transit Operations) and against MCTO general manager Tom Sather. The suit and supporting documents claim that Lindgren and other MCTO personnel have been punished for pushing to complete an internal theft investigation and report their findings.
The whole matter has quickly evolved into a nasty legal battle:
* The original presiding district court judge recused himself from the case following claims by Lindgren's lawyer that the judge had compromised his impartiality in the case.
* Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger--brought into the case ostensibly to act as an independent investigator of wrongdoing at MCTO--is now asserting a privileged attorney-client relationship with the Met Council, a claim that forestalls public access to all materials he subpoenaed and collected while investigating Lindgren's charges; his role in the case has drawn fire from Lindgren's attorney and partisan DFL critics.
* An affidavit filed by an executive secretary at MCTO in connection with the case claims that MCTO police and management personnel ordered a bus company employee to search the desks of Lindgren and MCTO Police Chief Paul Wallace and destroy "numerous documents."
By almost any measure, the bus company has fallen on hard times since the boom in ridership created by the early 1970s oil embargo began to ebb at the end of that decade. Tighter revenues, driven in part by the lack of growth in the property tax base, have resulted in numerous fare increases and service cutbacks since 1978. Ridership has declined by nearly a third during that time.
Claiming that revenues have been squeezed to the point where labor concessions must be made, MCTO management took a hard line with the bus drivers' union, demanding a decrease in the number of full-time drivers and refusing to extend the existing contract while negotiations continue, a position that forced drivers to strike earlier this month. Meanwhile, local media have reported that MCTO overspent on consulting fees by hundreds of thousands of dollars while giving management personnel hefty salary increases. Given these circumstances, the allegation that chronic theft and corruption have caused the bus company to hemorrhage untold monies for well over a decade seems especially troubling: a fiscal headache, and a political one, too.
The bus company is not generally regarded as a hotbed of political intrigue, but charges like the ones now being levied pose considerable problems not only for MCTO and its administrators but also for the Metropolitan Council and its political patrons all the way to the governor's office. The potential repercussions from any scandal at MCTO extend far and wide--particularly when the scandal involves claims of official indifference or obstruction.
Early in 1991, rumors of forthcoming budget cuts and layoffs prompted some employees to come forward with claims that up to $500,000 a year was being wasted through widespread internal theft and fraud involving everything from paper towels to lawn mowers. In interviews with transit police officers, the employees claimed that acceptance of these abuses was ingrained in the culture of what was then the MTC. One employee told transit police that a manager allowed workers to steal on the assumption that they would eventually have all they needed and wouldn't take any more. Another told police that an employee was encouraging his coworkers to steal, boasting that no one would ever be caught because the company had no effective way of tracking its parts and materials.
For the previous 10 years, a series of bus company audits had been saying essentially the same thing. Back in 1980, an evaluation by the Legislative Auditor's office pointed out that the quantity and value of parts listed in company records were different from what was actually on the shelves, and that purchasing procedures were not adequately documented. A 1983 audit specifically cited a lack of accountability in tracking the daily delivery of parts to each garage. By 1989, an internal audit by the bus company concluded that a $500,000 computerized Materials Management System, installed in 1986, had failed to adequately track the inventory.
A 1991 audit by Deloitte & Touche noted that bus company personnel were able to change purchase order information on the computer. That made it possible for employees to skim materials out of the system without leaving a trail. Or conversely, employees could order 100 parts and keep 50, changing the inventory figures to indicate that all 100 had been sent to various work locations. Once the parts bins containing bulk items were reduced to a certain level, they were automatically reordered, keeping the flow of merchandise going. The abuse of this system seems to have been chronic: The cost of inventory purchases at the transit company was $1.3 million over budget in 1990 alone.
Between 1980 and 1991, there were seven audits (not counting internal audits) by five different firms that criticized the MTC's purchasing procedures and/or inventory control. After each one, upper-level managers at the bus company claimed that the auditor's concerns were being properly addressed or were already fixed.
Michael Christenson had only recently taken over as head of the MTC when he says he was confronted by evidence of massive cost overruns. Christenson says he initially asked various state agencies to conduct an investigation, but that "they had no interest without the evidence already there to make a case." So in February 1991, he authorized the bus company's skeletal police force to conduct an internal investigation and okayed another audit to determine the extent of the problem. Less than a month later, employees came in with their allegations.
In March, the firm of McGladrey & Pullen delivered their findings in unusually blunt terms. There were "significant weaknesses" in the bus company's accounting systems. There was no way to track parts once they left the Central Stores. There was no inventory control over receipts, issues, or transfers of parts. Individual employees were allowed both to order and approve inventory purchases, which, combined with problems in the tracking system, "does not include adequate safeguards to ensure that public funds are not expended on items which are never received at an MTC location... or used in MTC operations." Lest bus company managers still not get the message, McGladrey & Pullen wrote: "A reasonable conclusion could be drawn that those individuals who support the current open stockroom policy, which is conducive to inventory shrinkage and theft, may do so for self-serving purposes."
Transit police officers had been given a pretty good indication that thefts were occurring within the company; now all they had to do was prove it. And that would prove very difficult.
"We started off with five employees making approximately 80 allegations," says Gary Cayo, one of the first police officers assigned to the investigation. "As we tried working our way through them, separating the garbage from the ones we could charge and dispose of, it became very frustrating." According to Lindgren, who helped coordinate the probe, "In many, many cases we couldn't prove that theft had occurred because we couldn't even prove that we owned the property because of the lack of a tracking system in the computers."
The problems faced by investigators are perhaps best portrayed by one incident in particular. An employee at one MTC garage had a falling-out with his brother-in-law, who went to Cayo and showed him a large new vise worth approximately $450. The brother-in-law said the employee had given him the vise and told him to keep it. In accordance with company policy, a serial number had been put on the vise with a metal stamp. But when Cayo tried to track the serial number through the company computers, he came up empty. Unable to tell where MTC had purchased the vise, he couldn't prove the company owned it, despite the serial number. But Cayo kept digging. Simultaneously combing through the tools at the garage and the invoices on the computer, he came upon a record of a 10-year-old vise whose serial number was exactly the same as the one given to the brother-in-law, except for one less number. When he tracked down that vise, the serial number had been written in magic marker on the side.
Inadequate tracking systems were not the only thing hindering the investigation. The transit police were not even a full-fledged law enforcement agency at the time, and most of the officers on the case were part-time workers. Lindgren and Cayo were both moonlighting from their full-time positions with the Minnetonka Police Department. In addition to working only 20 hours a week, they were occasionally diverted by other cases. Beginning in October 1991, they spent three or four months investigating charges against an employee who was suspected of stealing $10,000 per month out of the fareboxes at the Nicollet garage in Minneapolis. In February 1992, they were able to catch him in the act. The employee subsequently admitted he had been stealing farebox revenue since 1985, something he said he had been trained to do by other mechanics using handmade tools Cayo and Lindgren recovered.
Cayo and Lindgren also assert that their investigation was stymied by management's failure to resolve the transit union's contention that employees had a right to have a steward present during interviews with the officers. "Nobody was going to give us any inside information with the union there," Cayo says. He further claims employees were threatening other employees about cooperating with the probe. "There were threats being made to employees to discourage them from talking--nails stuck in their tires and their cars scratched. When you walk into the overhaul base, everybody and his brother is staring at you. At the Snelling garage, I stood face to face with two mechanics who wanted me out of there even after I'd identified myself."
When the union demanded a steward be allowed to attend their interviews, Cayo and Lindgren both say that lawyers for the bus company told them not to do any more interviewing until they came back with a ruling. To the best of their knowledge, the ruling never came. "I was personally with [MTC] Police Chief Paul Wallace when he called Christenson, and [much later] when he called Tom Sather too, asking for a ruling," Cayo says. "We were essentially being told, 'Don't interview anybody with the union.' And that was paramount to the cases we were working on."
About the same time the union was demanding input into the investigation, Wallace was informing top management personnel that the theft problem was not limited to a few low-level employees. According to meeting notes Wallace made at the time, he told Christenson in June 1991 that the "consensus of [the] investigative team is that [the] problem is culturally rooted in an intransigent bureaucracy," and that "The conditions that allowed this to happen and go on unabated could only have occurred because of senior management turning a 'blind eye.'" Five months later, in a memo to MTC general counsel Tom Weaver, Wallace warned that "[S]ome employees...use the MTC as their personal K Mart."
By late 1992, the internal investigation had pretty much wound down. Wallace's memos during this time speak of problems with leaks and an overall lack of confidentiality, and of the increasing stress and fatigue borne by his cadre of part-time officers. It also appeared that Wallace and his force had fallen out of favor with bus company administrators. Wallace wrote an exasperated memo to Weaver in December 1992, citing a lack of respect for his division and its "internal isolation from the rest of the MTC." The MTC police force, he said, should be given more resources or abolished altogether. Five months later an independent auditor agreed that, given its dual responsibilities for street security and internal investigations, the police division was understaffed and not adequately consulted on issues relevant to its operation.
In terms of bottom-line results--hard proof and concrete charges against wrongdoers--the internal theft investigation accomplished very little. The employee accused of possessing a stolen vise was allowed to enter and complete a pretrial program that cleared away the charges without a conviction. He continued to work at the bus company. Another employee pleaded guilty to stealing $2.28 in paper towels.
But the practical impact of the investigation on the bus company's purchasing habits appears to have been far more significant. Paper towel orders, which were running at about $5,000 per month, were reduced by more than half. And a year after the $1.3 million cost overruns, orders for bus parts fell hundreds of thousands of dollars under budget in 1991 and continued to significantly decline in 1992, to a level nearly $2 million under budget.
Yet in March 1993, some aspects of the investigation were still troubling Dick Lindgren. In a three-page memo to Wallace, he agreed that no future criminal prosecutions could be obtained, but argued for misconduct hearings and possible administrative sanctions against some managers. "People had lied to us," he explains. "I wanted to let Wallace know that, and to tell him there was some truth to what people were saying about managerial improprieties."
According to Lindgren, he gave a copy of his memo and other documents related to the investigation, including the McGladrey & Pullen audit, to incoming general manager Tom Sather, who took office in March 1993. Lindgren also claims that Wallace informed Sather that the police chief would be sustaining internal allegations against some managers in connection with the theft investigation. "Even without a criminal prosecution, that would have sent a message within the bus company," Lindgren says.
But Wallace did not take any immediate action. Much of his time during 1993 and early 1994 was spent getting the MCTO police department up and running after an act of the Minnesota Legislature made it a full-fledged law enforcement agency. (As part of this process, Lindgren took a $6,000 pay cut to join MCTO as a full-time police captain in August 1993.) By the middle of 1994, Lindgren says Wallace had again turned his attention toward resolving the theft investigation by sustaining complaints against some MCTO managers. It was around this same time, Lindgren claims, that he and Wallace began to discover various papers missing from their files.
Fourteen months ago, in August 1994, Sather put Wallace on developmental training leave. Wallace, who has completed the $17,000 training program and continues to draw his $55,000 annual salary, has yet to be allowed to return to his duties as chief. (Wallace said he would talk to City Pages if given permission by MCTO. Citing the pending lawsuit, MCTO has refused requests to speak with Wallace or Sather. In court documents, Sather denies any interference with the operation or reporting of Lindgren's investigation.)
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.
Finally, the restructuring of metro government was not a good financial deal for the economically beleaguered bus company. Beginning in 1995, MCTO is paying an annual governance fee of $600,000 to the Met Council. According to Thompson, that's about $500,000 a year more than was paid in governance fees before the restructuring.
Attorney Robert Hill says that when he filed suit against the Met Council and Tom Sather on behalf of Dick Lindgren, he immediately received a call from a Met Council attorney. "I was told point-blank by representatives from the Met Council that they were shocked by these allegations and wanted to get to the bottom of them. All they really wanted to do was get sufficient time to try and discredit my client," Hill says. "I made a mistake. I trusted these guys."
The lightning rod in the case is former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger, who was brought into the matter by the Met Council to investigate Lindgren's charges. Given his background, he had obvious credentials as a criminal investigator; on the other hand, friend and foe alike deem Heffelfinger a consummate political operator. The question that soon arose was whether he was brought in to conduct a good-faith investigation or to contain any potential political damage from the ongoing theft scandal, now overlaid with the complication of Lindgren's whistleblowing suit.
Met Council Executive Director Curt Johnson claims three or four public agencies turned down his request to investigate Lindgren's charges before he turned to Heffelfinger. Johnson, who left an influential position on Carlson's staff to come to the Met Council, says, "I recognize there is a downside to employing Tom Heffelfinger, because he is a partisan Republican who has been the governor's personal attorney in the past. As a result of that, he is a hot button for some Democrats. But he is the best attorney in town for investigating fraud."
Upon being retained by the Met Council on April 27, Heffelfinger initially portrayed himself as an independent investigator. To that end the court granted him the power to subpoena documents and testimony from all parties connected with Lindgren's lawsuit. After completing his investigation, Heffelfinger represented himself as an attorney for the Met Council; in the latter capacity, he has claimed attorney/client privilege over the documents and materials he collected as an investigator, keeping them effectively sealed. This apparent shift in duties is what prompted Hill's claims of a legalistic bait and switch.
Early on in the Lindgren lawsuit, District Court Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick acknowledged Heffelfinger as a "special investigator" and granted his motion that all records and documents related to the bus company investigation be turned over to him for review. Throughout the judge's order, Heffelfinger is referred to as a "special investigator," while Hill and Linda L. Holstein are duly noted as the attorneys representing Lindgren and the Met Council respectively.
Heffelfinger's version is that he was an investigator up until the time he had finished his investigation and delivered his report to the judge; then he continued in the case as Met Council attorney. "I was hired to provide them with legal advice to the facts I found from an investigation," he says. "I couldn't provide them with a legal analysis until I had a factual basis for providing them with that legal analysis."
Johnson and Heffelfinger seem to want it both ways in their accounts of the Heffelfinger investigation: insisting that the inquiry was genuinely impartial, yet insisting at the same time that Hill knew or should have known what Heffelfinger's role would ultimately be when he agreed to the judge's order. In the words of Curt Johnson, "Anybody with any insight at all knew that Tom Heffelfinger was our attorney."
The information collected by Heffelfinger, along with his 98-page report, remains sealed pending a ruling on a motion brought by Hill and the Star Tribune to make the material public. Thus the only extended public glimpse into the nature of Heffelfinger's investigation is a transcript of a May 31 progress report given by Heffelfinger to Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick, a meeting in which other attorneys in the case were not present.
In that transcript, Heffelfinger devotes most of his energy to damning the MTC/MCTO internal investigation. He notes in passing that there don't appear to be grounds for any future prosecutions in police files, and goes on to characterize Lindgren's investigation as "extremely disorganized," with "questionable interpretation, if you will, of departmental policy." Later, Heffelfinger tells the judge, "The investigation to date has not revealed any evidence of obstruction of justice in the sense that any supervisory people, senior management people, were telling the police 'don't do this' or 'don't do that' or killing an investigation. However, we have found a lot of evidence of policy violations by supervisory level people in the transit police."
When the judge asks whether Heffelfinger has received the MTC security videotapes and if they have been of assistance to his investigation, Heffelfinger replies, "I don't think it's appropriate today for me to start editorializing about how that police department was being run." Yet he goes on to criticize the department's "abysmal procedural techniques" and says that "the videotapes appear to be useless.... There's a tape in there of four tires being stolen by somebody. It's my understanding that individual was prosecuted and that's history. I'm not too interested in that kind of history." (Heffelfinger is apparently referring to the tire theft by the U-Haul driver in St. Paul, a case in which no individual was ever caught or prosecuted.)
"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."
It has been more than four years since transit police were first assigned to investigate internal theft at the MTC. Since that time, the accusations have flown fast and furious. At this point, very little has been resolved, but if you take an objective scorecard on the situation, you get an idea of who is winning. Allyson Hartle and the other MTC commissioners have had their commission dissolved from beneath them, and the MCTO still does not solicit competitive bids on its legal contracts. Despite a string of damning audits and allegations, the person who has been publicly sanctioned most severely among senior management at MCTO is Paul Wallace, who is on his 15th month away from his job. Last month, the Minnesota state auditor released the latest report on inventory control systems at the bus company, citing a familiar litany of 17 specific weaknesses, including no stockkeepers on duty at the garages and Central Stores on the weekends, inadequately controlled keys, "generally free access to stockrooms," and a variety of problems with the computer system.
Meanwhile, after nearly 30 years in law-enforcement work, Richard Lindgren rolls his 56-year-old body out of bed in the morning and gets ready for his part-time job driving a schoolbus for a district he would rather not identify. "I like kids. And it's challenging in a way, a little different than I thought," he says. "I've got a situation hanging over me so that no other employer will let me get past the front door. This district thought enough of me to give me this job. I am happy about that and I think they are too." Then he chuckles sadly. "At least it's honest work."