The Friends of Alan Page

John Derus, still smarting from his 1996 primary defeat and his misplaced election-day photo in the Star Tribune, claims state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page's ties to the Strib biased the outcome of Derus's case against the paper.

Minnesota's code of judicial ethics instructs judges to recuse themselves from cases in which their relationship to someone involved or their own extracurricular activities could pose a conflict of interest or create the perception of such a conflict. The code also stipulates that judges may not rule on cases involving parties in which they or any member of their households have a financial interest unless they disclose their conflict and everyone involved in a case agrees to let them stay on.

In Page's case, the potential conflict that comes up again and again is his foundation, by all appearances a well-run outfit with low overhead and admirable results. In 1993, the foundation sent out a fundraising letter signed by its board of directors--which, the letterhead noted, includes Alan Page. The appeal went out to many in the legal community and raised concerns about the propriety of Page's involvement. The outcry spurred Page to go to the Board of Judicial Standards seeking guidance in the handling of his dual roles as justice and fundraiser. Minnesota's code of judicial ethics bars judges from using their official positions to solicit funds for any cause, be it their own campaign or a private charity such as the Page Foundation. So the board ordered Page to refrain from signing fundraising letters or from noting his position on the court in fundraising materials.

The following year, the foundation mailed a similar letter, signed this time by Diane Sims Page. Recipients expressed similar concerns and Page went back to the state, which this time responded that he had complied with their earlier suggestions, but noted that the issue was likely to come up again. "There are many judges who serve in charitable nonprofit organizations, and the code provides for that," Willette said at the time. "The limitation is on their activity soliciting funds. But the code also says judges should be active in their communities, so there's always a tension." As a result of the questions raised by Page's involvement, the board called for further study of judges' roles in civic organizations.

One matter Willette said he hoped to explore was whether "the rules apply differently to somebody very well known like Justice Page." Indeed, Page's prestige and name recognition are most likely a large part of what makes the foundation successful, as well as the reason it bears his name. Last Nov. 5, the same day Derus was defeated at the polls, Sims Page signed a fundraising letter offering Vikes fans autographed, glossy Alan Page MVP commemorative cards--just in time for the holidays.

In addition to his stature as an NFL Hall of Famer and the leader of the Purple People Eaters, Page is politically plugged-in. A vocal supporter of such liberal candidates as Walter Mondale and Warren Spannaus and the first African American elected to the state's highest court, he's been photographed jogging with Bill Clinton. Both his foundation and his campaign finance records are peppered with the names of political, legal, and corporate movers and shakers.

Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor to their first six-year term and then run for re-election in what are supposed to be apolitical races. (In Minnesota, judges aren't even allowed to disclose party affiliations.) Up until recently, most ran unopposed and thus didn't often accrue large campaign war chests. But in 1992, Page raised nearly $64,000 from such DFL bigwigs as department-store heir Mark Dayton, a former Hennepin County commissioner and current gubernatorial candidate, then-West Publishing exec Vance Opperman, Aveda founder Horst Rechelbacher, and former House Majority Leader and U.S. Senate candidate Ann Wynia, as well as dozens of attorneys at large and well-connected law firms.

Minneapolis attorney Sam Kaplan is a partner in Kaplan, Strangis & Kaplan and one of the DFL's most influential behind-the-scenes kingmakers, playing a crucial fundraising role in many campaigns, most notably Paul Wellstone's two successful runs for U.S. Senate. Sam Kaplan himself apparently never contributed to Page's campaign, but his partner, Sheldon Kaplan (no relation), has, and Sheldon Kaplan's nephew, former DFL City Council member Mark Kaplan, was the treasurer of Page's campaign.

Two of Page's campaign donors, Dayton and DFL state Sen. Larry Pogemiller, also contributed to Linda Higgins, the DFL candidate who beat Derus in last fall's Senate race. Needless to say, Derus's campaign-finance disclosures don't list any of the same people who helped put Page on the bench. In recent years, the conservative Democrat's coffers have been filled by business interests, including broadcasting baron and Republican bankroller Stanley Hubbard.

A check of court records indicates that during the time Page has served on the bench, cases involving at least six foundation donors have come before the court. In addition to Cowles, they are Honeywell, St. Paul Companies, First Bank, Aetna, and Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi. Page recused himself from at least four of these cases, but ruled in at least 21 others. A review of those decisions reveals no pattern of favoritism toward foundation donors, and no consistent relationship between the timing of the companies' donations and subsequent decisions. One point that remains unclear is whether Page has ruled on cases involving Sims Page's clients, besides Cowles.

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