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By Jacob Wheeler
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by Beth Hawkins and Anders Smith-Lindall
The longer John Derus talks, the more the story starts to resemble an Oliver Stone epic. Derus, the old-school North Minneapolis politician who for 11 years ruled the Hennepin County Board with an iron fist, is still smarting from the loss last September of a primary race for a state Senate seat.
He blames his 104-vote loss on the Star Tribune, which, on election day, ran his photo below a headline decrying "charity fraud," and on Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, who cast the key vote rejecting his subsequent bid for a new election. Earlier this year Derus filed a complaint with the Minnesota Board of Judicial Standards arguing that Page should have bowed out of the case because he has several close ties to the newspaper: His wife does business with the Strib, whose parent company has donated $65,000 to Page's private, nonprofit educational foundation. And Cowles VP David Cox serves on the board of Cowles's philanthropic arm and on the advisory board of the Page Education Foundation. Even though the petition was the third complaint involving Page's foundation filed since the former Vikings great was elected in 1992, its recent dismissal didn't surprise Derus, who notes that the board's secretary, DePaul Willette, is married to an editor at the Star Tribune.
Nearly a year after his last loss at the ballot box, Derus believes that the ruling was the result of what he calls a campaign on the part of the Strib to influence the state Supreme Court and seal his departure from local politics. The newspaper's top brass, he says, has hated him for decades, in large part because of his anti-choice stance. Although the Strib has continually endorsed Derus's opponents, there's little evidence suggesting that the newspaper orchestrated the episode to sink Derus's District 58 Senate bid.
Minnesota's judicial code of ethics, however, is clear in stating that judges should avoid ruling on matters in which they or their spouses have a social or financial interest. Moreover, the code states that a justice needn't actually be biased to remove him or herself from a given case, the circumstances need only provide the appearance of a conflict.
Nonetheless, it would appear that the dismissal of Derus's complaint means that troubling questions about Page's potential conflicts of interest in this and other cases will remain unanswered. A City Pages review of Page's judicial decisions, Page Education Foundation financial records, and Minnesota's judicial canon of ethics reveals that Page has ruled on numerous cases involving contributors to his nonprofit and to his 1992 electoral campaign. How many of these questions the board probed and the grounds on which they rejected the complaint will probably remain unknown because its proceedings are secret. Willette says state law bars him from commenting for this story unless Page grants him permission, and Page's only response to City Pages' questions was to fax the paper a copy of a letter from Willette informing him that Derus's complaint had been dismissed.
When the polls opened on primary day Sept. 10, the race between John Derus and Linda Higgins for the DFL nomination to represent Minneapolis's North Side in the state Senate was too close to call. Accustomed to the Strib's longstanding policy of not publishing election stories on days the polls are open, Derus didn't expect to see anything about his race in the morning metro section. He hadn't even had time to unfold his own newspaper when, at 6 a.m., his phone rang with what he says was the first of dozens of calls from supporters who opened their copies of the paper to find Derus's mug illustrating a story whose headline included the words "charity fraud." Derus lost the race, his third losing contest in as many races.
Derus didn't buy the Strib's explanation--that the photo popped up because it was never cleared out of the computer's memory cache--and on Sept. 23 asked Hennepin County courts to throw out the election results and order a new one. The case was to be farmed out to a court in another county quickly enough that a decision could be made in time for the November election to go ahead. But on Oct. 1, the state Supreme Court took the extraordinary step of reaching down into district court and plucking away the case.
The five justices who read the briefs submitted by Derus, Higgins, and the Star Tribune issued four opinions. The majority opinion, authored by Sandy Keith and Jeanne Coyne, rejected Derus's claim, concluding that Minnesota election law can't be used to sue a third party such as a privately owned newspaper. Two justices voted to allow local courts to decide the complaint on its merits, at least creating a record of relevant facts. Two more bowed out of the case. Page's vote was the tie-breaker. In a separate argument, he concluded that the rarely used law cited in Derus's brief was unconstitutional.
Derus unsuccessfully appealed the ruling, complaining that Page should have recused himself from the case due to conflicts of interest. Since 1990, Cowles had given $65,000 to the small Minneapolis nonprofit that Page founded to grant college scholarships to disadvantaged minority youth. In addition, public relations consultant Diane Sims Page, the justice's wife and a foundation board member, counts Cowles among her clientele. Furthermore, Cowles President David Cox--one of the individuals named in Derus's suit--both sits on the foundation's advisory board and is vice president of Cowles's philanthropic arm.
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