Last July 18 Sharon Sayles Belton and Jackie Cherryhomes, then mayor of Minneapolis and president of its city council, respectively, addressed a city shaken by the sudden resignation of one of its elected officials. The day before, Eighth Ward council member Brian Herron had announced that he was pleading guilty to federal extortion charges, and the two most powerful players in city hall were scrambling to simultaneously learn the extent of the political damage and contain it.
They promised the city's voters that the one thing they could do, even without many answers, was to launch a thorough, independent investigation. They were positive, they asserted, that the investigation would find nothing remiss beyond the door of Herron's hastily vacated office. Minneapolis, they swore, was a clean city with clean leadership. And last week the investigator (a Chicago lawyer appointed after the mayor's first choice turned out to be a campaign contributor) stood before the city council proclaiming the rest of Minneapolis's officials and bureaucrats squeaky-clean.
Perhaps too clean, Cherryhomes's successor as Fifth Ward representative, Natalie Johnson Lee, complained as she stared at the empty shelf space in her new office.
Shortly after the November elections, vanquished Minneapolis City Council members began cleaning out their offices. As is customary, the city provided dumpsters for the former ward leaders' convenience as they winnowed the piles of papers they had accumulated over the years, although they were to be careful to ensure that their successors would be able to make sense of the paper trails documenting council business and correspondence with constituents over the years.
Cherryhomes, a legendary power broker who cast a wide, controlling net over many city operations, had had two of the dumpsters in her office for weeks. Before Christmas she summoned Johnson Lee to her office for a brief transitional meeting, where she assured the newcomer that she wasn't throwing away anything directly related to current Fifth Ward business. "She said she and her staff were definitely archiving in a database and setting aside transition stuff," Johnson Lee recalls. Still, she was surprised to see that "there were files going out of here by the basketful."
Not only were the filing cabinets virtually empty when she took office on January 3, Johnson Lee complains. Cherryhomes's electronic files--which can include anything from memos, correspondence, schedules, and constituent calls--were deleted from the office computers. "I haven't seen 'em, the record keepers haven't seen 'em, nobody has seen 'em," Johnson Lee says. "But nobody will say they are gone."
There has been no official response to a request made by City Pages to the Minneapolis city clerk's office on February 21 to produce the files. City employees are said to be fruitlessly searching high and low for any information related to Cherryhomes's term in office. City staffers are reluctant to say for sure that the files are gone, however. Merry Keefe, the Minneapolis city clerk, says the city is still searching. "So far, there is nothing," Keefe admits, adding that neither Cherryhomes nor her erstwhile staffers, Patti Marsh and Candra Edwards, have produced anything in response to the city's requests.
While many past and present council members say it is not uncommon for outgoing officeholders to trash some files during transition periods, all are shocked to find out the extent to which Jackie Cherryhomes and her staff purged city hall of her business. For her part, Keefe says she is not yet sure that Cherryhomes threw out or deleted anything she might have been legally obligated to save. "The question is, is anything gone that should have been saved?" Keefe says. "The answer is, we don't know. We are concerned, but we are not going to speculate. There's a lot of speculation."
Indeed, city hall insiders are quietly abuzz over what, if any, action the city should take against Cherryhomes, and what would have motivated the former council president to purge her files. Cherryhomes's 12-year tenure in the Fifth Ward, a north-side district heavily populated by poor and minority families, was clouded by controversy. In 1992, shortly after she took office, a number of the ward's poorest constituents sued the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development over the woeful living conditions in the north-side public housing projects. The case was settled in 1995 by an agreement--the so-called Hollman decree--under which the city agreed to demolish hundreds of units of public housing, and to create new units in more affluent parts of the city and the suburbs. Redevelopment has been slow to nonexistent, and Cherryhomes's involvement in the project has been criticized. Specifically, critics have charged that under her direction, the amount of low-income housing included in the new neighborhood has plummeted and that lucrative contracts have gone to the former council president's supporters.
Meanwhile, there was the extortion scandal involving Eighth Ward representative Brian Herron this summer. Herron pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from a local businessman. As a part of an ongoing federal investigation into the extent of the wrongdoing, the names of some close associates of Cherryhomes popped up during the investigation, though none were tied directly to the scandal. Also, Cherryhomes was instrumental in getting Herron's aide to file to run for his vacant seat right before the election filing deadline. And finally, in the stacks and stacks of papers that federal investigators subpoenaed as part of the investigation, several e-mail dispatches from Cherryhomes's office surfaced (see "Who Knew?", July 25, 2001, available at www.citypages.com/archive/).
Any controversies aside, however, city hall insiders say they believe that Cherryhomes's main motivation was spite. Simply put, they say she was so upset by her defeat, and holds so much acrimony toward Johnson Lee, that she simply wanted to make council life extraordinarily difficult for her.
"It seems to be a calculated effort to set up her successor to fail," suggests current council vice president Robert Lilligren, newly elected to fill Herron's old seat on the Eighth Ward. "You would hope that an elected official wouldn't be that petty and would have a greater concern for constituents." Lilligren is one of several people who say they saw Cherryhomes and her aides "tossing boxes after boxes into two big dumpsters."
Neither Cherryhomes nor either of her former aides would return calls from City Pages seeking comment for this story. But last week the erstwhile council member told a local television station that she didn't keep many files in her office because she has a photographic memory. Further confusing things, both Johnson Lee and Lilligren charge that one of Cherryhomes's former staffers appeared at a public hearing two weeks ago with stacks of documents pertaining to past Fifth Ward business.
In any case, all that's left in the office now, Johnson Lee and Lilligren maintain, is one box that's about a third full of useless papers pertaining to small matters. They say Cherryhomes kept track of constituent and business contacts via computer; Johnson Lee insists that the entire database for the Fifth Ward is missing. (Late last week, city clerk Keefe says, searches on keywords such as Hollman and Cherryhomes produced nothing originating from the former council president's office, but by Friday some 600 files that were automatically backed up by the city's system had been found. They will be reviewed and turned over to Johnson Lee in the coming weeks.)
Under guidelines maintained by the city clerk, ward offices are responsible for maintaining calendars, complaints, telephone logs, and e-mail records. Further, ward offices are supposed to maintain general correspondence for two years, at which point it is to be turned over to the city's archives, where it is held for six years after the council member leaves office. State law is even broader: It requires "every legal custodian of government records [to] deliver to a successor in office all government records in custody." City archivists have received nothing from Cherryhomes since 1997, according to Keefe.
Laura Sether, press secretary for R.T. Rybak's office, says that the mayor is aware that Cherryhomes took the files. She says the matter has Rybak concerned not only about the files, but how to prevent such actions in the future. "The mayor is taking this seriously because this information belongs to the public," Sether says, noting that some council members feel their office files are personal. "We are not sure what action will be taken, but there are ethics questions and recommendations the mayor wants to make to prevent this from happening again."
The flap over the missing files last week sparked complaints throughout city hall that the city's independent investigation into the Herron scandal was too narrowly focused; the probe focused almost solely on licensing and inspection issues in the Eighth Ward. Newcomer Lilligren is one of those who thinks the city's and the FBI's probes should have been broader. "Why were both investigations so focused?" he asks. "They were supposed to be citywide."
Johnson Lee offers a final irony: She says that Cherryhomes's predecessor, the equally controversial Van White, did the same thing on his way out of office in 1990. This means, Johnson Lee says, that it's quite possible that 20 years of files regarding the Fifth Ward are gone. At the very least, she is quick to add, the city should take measures to ensure that this sort of thing never happens again.
"I'm not sure what would motivate someone to destroy a whole office of files," Johnson Lee concludes. "It's like in the Enron case: Destruction of files, or the appearance of missing files, gives the strong suspicion of impropriety. It don't smell too good."