Last Man Standing

In the 25 years that he's served as Hennepin County's first and only chief public defender, Bill Kennedy has earned a tough-as-nails reputation for the way he defends his clients, his staff, and himself. This year he's pitted against Hennepin County prose

          He first met Kennedy, McGee says, while working a staff attorney at Minneapolis's Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to poor people. He admired both the man and the office, and joined Kennedy's staff in 1984. Two years later he went back to the Legal Rights Center, this time as its executive director. "He had wonderful legal skills," says Doug Hall, the center's founder who recruited McGee and remains close friends with him.

          "He had a sense of the mission of the center, which was a community-based project rather than just a legal office. A lot of young lawyers come out of law school, and they think they know everything, so people should take their advice. At Legal Rights, the process was exactly reverse. The lawyer didn't ever say 'I think you should plead guilty.' We were trying to find out what they really wanted to do and then using our legal skills to develop that. And McGee was one of the first to really get inside that philosophy. That's what set the center apart from everything else."

          Not everyone was as impressed, though. "I have no faith in him whatsoever," says Izear Watkins, who was on the center's board during McGee's tenure. "I was one of the founders, so I knew what the idea [behind the center] was. With McGee, there were cases they wouldn't take because of the crime the person was accused of committing. I thought people are presumed not guilty until they go to court." (McGee acknowledges that, in drug cases for example, he preferred defending those accused of mere possession over those charged with dealing, "because individuals involved with the sale of drugs were hurting the community.")

          Watkins and some other board members also accuse McGee of either starting or continuing sloppy bookkeeping practices to the point where the IRS was threatening sanctions. Tax records from the period, like all files older than six years, have been destroyed by the agencies keeping them. However, a 1990 memo from then-board chairman David Nasby does refer to "the question of expense, audit, control and salary advances [being] more under control than in the previous review."

          In addition, minutes from a 1988 board of directors meeting say McGee told the board that "all delinquent taxes and interest have been paid, but penalties [of at least $7,300] are still owed." And a letter from the center's auditor at the time, William Brown, says he found that his audit for 1987 "reflected serious financial difficulties in paying obligations such as payroll taxes, which resulted in penalties and interest expense." He recommended bookkeeping changes "so that errors can be detected in a timely manner." He said, the center "should either increase its fund-raising efforts or reduce expenditures where possible."

          "There's not much I can say about that," McGee responds. "The center has always had financial difficulties. But we never missed a paycheck while I was there. We met budget." Later, when asked about documents referring to "outstanding salaries to employees in the amount of $5,800," McGee amends that to say he and comptroller Steve Henry occasionally skipped their own paychecks. He says the IRS problems were due to the center's failure to properly escrow payroll taxes, and that payroll was subsequently contracted out.

          McGee's most high-profile venture into the public arena came after the 1990 death of Tycel Nelson, a young African-American man shot in the back by a police officer in what the cop said was self-defense. When community advocates demanded a special investigation, McGee was appointed to lead it. The results of the investigation remain secret; they were presented to a grand jury, which did not return an indictment. The officer, Dan May, is still on the force.

          "It was a no-win situation," McGee says about the case now. "I don't like to talk about it much. I knew that I would be criticized no matter how it went. But I did seem to be a person who was acceptable both to the community and to the other parts of the system. It was not my job to agree or disagree with the conclusions of the grand jury."

          During that investigation, McGee functioned as a special assistant to the Hennepin County Attorney's office. He became a staff attorney there the following year. "There were a couple of incidents in my life at that time that changed me," he says. "One was when I ran into an old client and he said 'Mr. McGee, I'm not in trouble, I just want to let you know that I'm okay now, and I tell all my friends that if they want to get off, they should get Bill McGee at the Legal Rights Center.'

          "I began to think about the kinds of messages that we send our young people, particularly in plea bargaining, when we minimize the consequence or minimize the behavior. I got five charges, I want to plead two and get three dismissed and get minimal consequences. What does that do to foster accountability in our young people? We draw a line, and when they cross it we move the line.

          "And so I thought, maybe there's a way that I can have more of an impact from the other side. I believe in the right kinds of situations a prosecutor can do as much good as 10 defense attorneys. And I chose to work in the juvenile area, because I think that's where I could make the most difference."

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