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

          "I was called just about every name in the book by people who I used to work with. Liar, traitor, backstabber. A memo came out that called me a cowardly macho idiot because of an incident where I got into an argument with a prosecutor and she accused me of throwing a file at her."

          It ended up coming down to a choice between Cahill and Kennedy, and Cahill was assured he had the votes. Then something happened--Cahill says he still doesn't know what--and Kennedy was in by a hair's breadth.

          There are many versions of how the political arithmetic changed that day. Kennedy's story is that he simply convinced wavering board members of his merits. Bill McGee's is a little more complicated.

          Though he was a prosecutor by the time the vote came around, McGee had been a member of the board until a few months earlier; in fact, he says, "there was some interest in me running [for Kennedy's job], but I declined out of deference to him." Then Kennedy asked for his support, McGee says, and got it. "But it was not without dealing with some issues that needed to be addressed. There was a meeting to discuss what it would take to keep Bill in the job. And Bill made some promises.

          "Number one, that it was going to be his last term. Number two, to increase the diversity in the office and the diversity at the senior attorney level." (The number of minority attorneys in Kennedy's office has long been a matter of contention. Kennedy says his office has more--15 percent--than any other district in the state. His critics say he needs to do better. Of the supervising attorneys, all but one are white.) "And number three, to work in a more cooperative spirit with the [state] board and the other district chiefs. Those were just some of the things he said he would do. I used what little influence I had with board members, because I believed that Bill was a man of his word. That was my experience until then. It is different now."

          About a year after Kennedy's reappointment, McGee says he met with his old boss for lunch. "I said look, Bill, the things you said you would do you're not doing. Bill developed amnesia. I didn't like that. I'm no fool, and I would much rather have someone say to me 'I changed my mind' than 'I don't remember that.'"

          McGee says the two didn't talk much after that, except for a chance encounter about a year ago. "He said to me, 'Bill, I'm going to need your help again.' And I said, 'Bill, that's something we're going to have to sit down and talk about.'" The next time he heard from Kennedy, McGee says, was this spring, when the chief offered him a position as a senior attorney. He declined. "I thought," he says pointedly, "that it was done for the wrong reasons."

          "That's bullshit," Kennedy counters. "I did offer him a job, but he turned me down. I now know why he turned me down--he's been working on this [application for the chief's job] for a while."

          As for the alleged 1992 deal, Kennedy says McGee's story is "absurd. It's ludicrous--why would I [trade promises for a job] and also sue the state and the county? He's been warned about saying this, because it's a lie, and I will take anyone to court who continues saying it. You want to talk about Bill Kennedy, you tell the truth. I have a real thing about that."

          Of course, it wouldn't be altogether out of character for Kennedy to play a smooth behind-the-scenes maneuver. There are plenty of people who can testify to having antagonized him and never knowing what hit them. As controversial as he's been, notes Edwards, "he also has friends in powerful places. Folk who know where the skeletons are. You get caught in the middle between these titans--watch out." That's what McGee's finding out now, in the most bizarre twist to the tale yet.

          In 1990, a woman named Loretta Scott filed a paternity action in Hennepin County District Court. She had given birth in 1988 to a boy she named Jeremy. The father, she alleged and the court confirmed, was McGee. Scott, who was then 25, had a criminal record--things like stabbing a man in a parking lot and trying to cash a stolen check--and she'd been represented by a Hennepin County public defender. That attorney was also McGee.

          Sex with clients has only recently been forbidden in the standards issued by the state Lawyers' Board of Professional Responsibility. The matter was pretty controversial at the time; even now, the code only prohibits "sexual relations" (painstakingly defined as "intentional touching of the intimate parts of a person or causing the person to touch the intimate parts of the lawyer") with current clients. McGee says his and Scott's relationship didn't begin until after she'd stopped being an "active client" of his. Court documents list him as her attorney of record up to April 1987; Jeremy was born in early February 1988.

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