The Trials of David Lillehaug

In the wake of Najarian and Shabazz, the U.S. attorney and former DFL prodigy finds his once-bright political future in question.

For Lillehaug there was the job of U.S. attorney, which wasn't quite as secure--it generally changes with each administration--but had potential of its own. Federal prosecutors have seen their powers expand dramatically as Congress created ever new crimes and stiffer penalties, especially in politically expedient areas like guns and drugs. In Minnesota, the U.S. attorney presides over a staff of 40-plus lawyers (up from just a dozen in the 1970s), in an office whose total budget is $5 million and which charges an average of 500 new cases a year.

The first year of Lillehaug's term passed with relatively little fanfare. He continued prosecutions begun by his predecessor, and occasionally invited the media in for press conferences. Back at the office, he threw himself into the new assignment--learning new areas of the law, digesting reams of federal statutes, becoming a manager. Though criminal cases make up about three-quarters of the office's work, not having a background in that area wasn't a problem, he claims: "There are 30 really good prosecutors in this office, and from a subject-matter standpoint, criminal law is in many ways less complex than civil litigation. I had to get up to speed pretty quickly, and I think I did. But I did not get much sleep in those first few months."

Nor did he get a lot of pats on the back. A half-dozen or so veteran lawyers left the office during his first few months in office--a fact Lillehaug attributes to generous federal incentive packages and personal reasons, but which others pin on his management style. Though none of those who left will comment on the record, several have complained that the new boss swept in with talk of how things needed changing, and right away; some senior staffers were demoted, others had their jobs reshuffled. "From the outside," says criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor Earl Gray, "all I can tell is that a lot of the personality has gone out of that office. You get a bunch of Harvard graduates who--I don't want to get into it too much, because I work with these people, and they're not all that way. But it's become more cold-blooded. They don't care about anything."

There are also complaints that Lillehaug's promise to "shatter the glass ceiling" for women and minorities turned out to be hollow; the only person willing to discuss that complaint publicly was paralegal Beth Kendrick, who filed a sex-discrimination grievance in 1994. Most of the relevant events had actually taken place before Lillehaug came on; so, Kendrick and her lawyer, Teresa Patton, say they were shocked by Lillehaug's response to what could have been a routine matter. "It was as if he was saying 'I'll be damned if there's a sex-discrimination complaint in my office,'" Kendrick says, and Patton calls it "the most bizarre experience I ever had with a case like this... We came to think of it as our encounters with the White Rabbit." Documents from the negotiations indicate that Lillehaug asked Kendrick not only to drop her complaint, but also to make an "affirmative statement" that no discrimination had ever occurred, and to promise not to talk to anyone about the issue "including representatives of the media." All he offered in return was to pay her attorney's fees.

Kendrick eventually withdrew her complaint--mostly, says Patton, because under federal employment law her boss would have had the right to reject any findings the EEO investigation came up with. When asked about the complaint, Lillehaug says, "I can't tell you how much I'd like to comment on that," but adds that he's prohibited from talking about personnel matters. He calls his record on hiring and promotion "stellar," noting that of 11 attorneys he's hired, "six have been women and four people of color," that he's promoted several women support staffers, and supported flexible work schedules. Later he refers questions to the Department of Justice, which confirms the numbers.

As it turned out, troubles inside the office would become the least of Lillehaug's worries. Sometime in 1994, he got notice from the FBI that they were following conversations between Qubilah Shabazz, daughter of the late Malcolm X, and a Twin Cities coin dealer named Michael Fitzpatrick. They'd known each other in high school in New York; after that, Shabazz had gone to study in Paris and Fitzpatrick had become an FBI informant, infiltrating radical Jewish groups and the Communist Workers Party. The federal Witness Protection Program had given him a new name, Michael Kevin Summers, which he used when it suited him; his résumé also included a drug habit, a bankruptcy, and agitating for violent action among Twin Cities anarchists.

Fitzpatrick/Summers and Shabazz hadn't seen each other since high school when they reconnected in 1994. Soon Shabazz told friends she was moving to Minneapolis to buy a house with Michael, who would be a new father to her son. The pair also talked about Shabazz's resentment of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, who Shabazz believed had been involved in Malcolm X's assassination and, she worried, might want to knock off her mother. Fitzpatrick was taping the conversations for the FBI.

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