Hey Joe!

A closer look at Joe Duffy's probe into Minneapolis corruption

"This is truly an outstanding city comprised of outstanding people and outstanding elected officials," Joe Duffy told a Minneapolis City Council committee last February. Concluded Duffy, a Chicago attorney who'd been appointed by then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton to investigate the city's regulatory services in the wake of the Brian Herron scandal: "Mr. Herron's conduct appears to be an aberration." ¬ Less than a month later, of course, federal investigators were issuing subpoenas regarding council member Joe Biernat, who was subsequently indicted on extortion charges involving a member of--you guessed it--one of the city's regulatory agencies.

Which brings up the obvious question: Did the city get its $150,000 worth out of Duffy's little probe?

Perhaps. Though it attracted little notice at the time, Duffy's report to the city included several recommendations for reform. A nine-member ethics task force appointed by Mayor R.T. Rybak is considering the adoption of a number of those suggestions, including the formation of a constituent-service office to handle complaints; greater disclosure of loans to elected officials; and, most significant, a reduction in the use of so-called special council permits, which for years have been used to circumvent the city's normal regulatory channels.

Special council permits can be granted by the city council to property owners and developers who have a project that does not fully comply with the city's ordinances. According to Duffy's report, they have "evolved--primarily with respect to zoning matters--as a de facto substitute for more cumbersome procedures required by the Code, such as amendments, variances, and conditional-use permits. Because those procedures require public hearings, comment and approval, they can cause substantial delay and expense." Duffy found that the special permits have been used as a shortcut to allow, say, construction activities to begin "pending approval" of a rezoning application. "Of course, once construction begins pursuant to a special permit," he noted, "it would be a substantial hardship for the rezoning to be denied."

Moreover, Duffy discovered that owing to what he called "aldermanic courtesy," the council has routinely granted special permits when they're requested by a colleague on the dais.

"This is a practice that several of us council members have been itching to do away with," says council president Paul Ostrow, adding that he has also asked City Coordinator John Moir to look into the issue and report back to the council. Like Duffy, Ostrow is concerned about the instances in which special permits have been used to supersede city ordinances. Ostrow estimates that this happens "maybe a dozen times a year. I'm not saying any wrongdoing has occurred," he emphasizes, "but it does set up the potential for arbitrary and special treatment."

It can also put the city in a precarious legal position. Duffy's report cites the 1990 special permit that allowed American Iron & Supply Co. to proceed with plans to build its Kondirator metal shredder. A year later, when the city reviewed the situation further and ordered American Iron to halt construction until the company provided more information on the environmental effects of the operation, American Iron sued for damages. After nine years of litigation, the city settled the case, paying the company $8.75 million.

Overall, the jury is still out on Joe Duffy. "Given the timeline and the money involved, it was not possible to conduct an exhaustive review of all the city's regulatory practices, nor was it ever intended to be," argues City Attorney Jay Heffern, who adds that initial estimates of the cost of the probe ranged from $250,000 to $3 million.

"The result might be debatable, but I certainly would have objected to the city taking no action to investigate," opines Rybak. "Doing nothing wouldn't have been acceptable. Maybe a better investment would have been to use that $150,000 to implement a better ethics policy, but that is something we are doing now for free."

Eighth Ward council member Robert Lilligren isn't swayed. "I always thought that the focus was too narrow, and that if we weren't going to do a broader investigation that we should leave it for the feds," says Lilligren. "The Herron news broke during the campaign season, and elected officials needed to look like they were doing something. The public impression [after Duffy presented his report] was that he was giving the city a clean bill of health. My general feeling is that that was what he was hired to do--not directly, but because of the budget and the circumstances."

Says Duffy himself: "Notwithstanding the Biernat situation, which I know nothing about, you should be very proud of your system and the people who work in it."

Meanwhile, this past month federal investigators issued another subpoena for city records, amid rumors that they've expanded the scope of the Biernat probe.

 
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