No Power of Attorney for Frogtown Prosecutor

The St. Paul City Attorney's Office appointed John Lesch as community prosecutor for the Frogtown neighborhood in September. Since the Ramsey County Attorney's office has refused to swear him in, however, Lesch can neither prosecute felonies nor have access to county files. In other words, he can't do his job.

The hang-up, it seems, is all about politics. This past year, Lesch, a Democrat, decided to run for an open seat in the state legislature. In November he easily defeated Greg Copeland, the Republican who lost to Mee Moua in last January's special election to fill the state senate seat left by St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly. According to Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, Copeland is being prosecuted for campaign violations in his race against Moua (he is accused of mailing out campaign literature inaccurately claiming that he was the only pro-life candidate in the senate race). And as long as Copeland is under indictment, Gaertner says, she can't swear in Lesch as Frogtown's community prosecutor--even though Copeland's alleged behavior has nothing to do with this fall's election or Lesch's competence as an attorney.

"That is a conflict," declares Gaertner. "[Copeland has] been under investigation in this office since shortly after Mee Moua's election. We had the case before John Lesch was proposed to be the community prosecutor."

Curiously, it turns out that Lesch worked as a campaign manager for Jim Farrell in 1998, who ran in a hotly contested race against Gaertner for county attorney. When it's suggested that this might have had something to do with Gaertner's uncooperative attitude, however, she bristles. "I think this is much ado about nothing. People love to look for politics and behind-the-scenes, cloak-and-dagger stuff." (John Lesch declined to comment.)

Ultimately, of course, it's the Frogtown neighborhood that suffers most from the flap. The absence of a fully empowered community prosecutor comes at a crucial time. In August, the St. Paul Police Department completed "Operation Sunrise," a two-month investigation that led to roughly 90 people being arrested on drug- and gang-related charges.

Tait Danielson, lead community organizer for the District 7 Planning Council, which covers the Frogtown area, says that the community prosecutor would be ideally suited to coordinate and expedite the cases. "It would be impossible for a community prosecutor to take on all those cases, but he could've been a point person, someone to run as a conduit from county to city and city to county," he argues. Sure enough, Danielson recently got a call from a county prosecutor seeking community impact statements for the cases. "I had submitted impact statements to the police but they were never received by the county."

Mercifully, the dispute will be moot at the end of the year, when Lesch steps down to begin work as a state legislator--assuming someone swears him in, that is.

 
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