Public Defender Battle Gets Hotter Yet.

Kennedy and McGee forces keep swapping charges, and the Star Tribune comes under fire.

Loretta Elgren stole the show at the state Board of Public Defense meeting November 21. Wearing a fire-truck red dress with matching hat that looked like something out of a Seurat painting, she marched to the front of a room packed with men in dark suits. "I'm here to put an end to the rumor that Bill Kennedy got me to say anything bad about Bill McGee," she announced.

She was talking about the Hennepin County chief public defender and the main contestant for his job. ("Bill Kennedy's Last Stand?" CP 11/20) One of the two was supposed to have been appointed by the board that afternoon for a four-year term. But it wouldn't happen: For weeks the legal community had been abuzz with rumors about the two candidates, and on Wednesday both metro dailies had reported McGee's claims of a smear campaign launched against him by Kennedy or his staff.

At the center of the stories was Elgren, a former client of McGee's who'd had his child, filed a harassment suit against him, and accused him of a variety of crimes. The Star Tribune said Elgren had told the paper that "an investigator in the defender's office recently sought her out in an effort to gather incriminating information about McGee's behavior and past lifestyle."

Now Elgren was declaring that she'd never said anything of the sort. What had happened, she said, was that some time back she had gotten a call from someone in the county attorney's office. The person informed her that McGee was telling people he had two children, "one by his former wife and one by a prostitute." She'd called McGee to complain. His response, she claimed, had been to tell her she should keep her mouth shut. Furious, she had then contacted the public defender's office to spill the beans on her former lover. "And Paul McEnroe [the author of the Star Tribune article] or anyone else who said that [Kennedy] got me to say this is lying." (Of course the Star Tribune never did say Kennedy directly contacted Elgren.)

"Miss," the chairman of the hearing interrupted, "we're here to take testimony for one side or another. If you're not going to..." She tried again, pulling out a picture of her son, and was interrupted again. "Well, I'm here to speak for Bill Kennedy," she concluded. "I don't know Bill Kennedy, I've never spoken to him, but I've heard that he's done good things." And with that, she was out of the room. Several members later expressed disgust at her testimony and the applause that followed it.

Considering that she'd just called the core of the Star Tribune's story a flat-out lie, you might have thought the episode would have made the paper. It didn't. McEnroe says that's because he was sure of his notes regarding her original statement, and that "it's not something I would get wrong."

Under different circumstances, this might not even bear mentioning: Newspapers are selective by nature, and sources often complain about being misquoted. But in this case, the Star Tribune--and, to a lesser extent, the Pioneer Press--was the story: Their decision to cover the controversy as one over mudslinging had set off the whole brouhaha. And part of what's so striking about the Star Tribune's and the board members' treatment of Elgren is that while everyone seemed anxious to discuss her statements when they seemed to impugn Kennedy, both her claim to being misquoted and the substance of her allegations were essentially shrugged off. (Sources claim the public defender beat became such a subject of controversy at the Star Tribune that one reporter went to the extraordinary lengths of formally withdrawing from the story, allegedly because he believed it would be unfairly slanted.)

Until the day after the board meeting, the paper never mentioned the one credible charge Elgren makes: that McGee became sexually involved with her while he was her attorney. (McGee is vague on this point, noting only that the attorney/client relationship was not "active" when they became involved; Elgren maintains that it was.) Instead, it focused on even more inflammatory allegations--that McGee killed his brother-in-law before her eyes, and that he had sex with her while she was in the Ramsey County workhouse.

Regarding the first charge, McEnroe quoted "a law enforcement official familiar with the case" as saying that an as-yet-unpublished investigation by St. Louis County prosecutor John DeSanto had found no new evidence suggesting foul play. As for the second, it reported only McGee's denial. (Workhouse records indicate that Elgren served 60 days between February 19 and April 20, 1987. Bob Nelson, director of the Volunteers of America which runs the facility, confirms that "at some point" in the last 12 years, "we discovered a lawyer and a client embracing," but says he cannot remember who it was. He denies that, as Elgren has claimed, the workhouse instituted restrictions on attorney visits after the incident.)

It's not hard to see how reporters and officials could have been tempted to dismiss what Elgren says. She is a black woman with an extensive rap sheet, making outrageous claims against a former lover who happens to be a successful attorney. The Pioneer Press perhaps best summarized the prevailing mind-set when it quoted McGee as saying that "she told me a long time ago that if she couldn't have me, she would do everything she could to destroy me." It did not mention that Elgren makes the same charge about McGee.

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