Not Quite Ready for His Close-Up

A local prof rides the Gonzales Eight to fame, but there are holes in the research

So what led to the inference that the mayor was being investigated by the feds?

In the press release, Rybak said: "We have no information from the U.S. Attorney's Office about the purpose or scope of the investigation. We will fully cooperate with the U.S. Attorney's Office if they request our assistance."

It's the kind of boilerplate copy any politician would issue, but to Shields, it was enough to lump Rybak in with the Democrats who had been targeted by the feds.

University of St. Thomas prof John Cragan, having his Warhol moment
Mike Mosedale
University of St. Thomas prof John Cragan, having his Warhol moment

While it's possible Rybak was investigated, it's highly doubtful. Tom Heffelfinger was the U.S. attorney in Minnesota until his resignation last year. Under federal law, Heffelfinger says, he cannot comment on investigations that did not result in charges. But it doesn't take a scholar to read between the lines: "Rybak should be pissed off," Heffelfinger says. "That's irresponsible for someone to publish something like that."

And Rybak isn't the only Minnesotan to land on the list for questionable reasons. Cragan and Shields included Senator Klobuchar because she called the FBI on one of her campaign workers. That worker, whom Klobuchar promptly fired, had viewed an unaired political advertisement by using a password to gain access to the rival campaign's consultant website. But does Klobuchar's reporting of this relatively minor incident really signify that she was "investigated" by the U.S. attorney—and was thus a victim of "political profiling"?

Like Heffelfinger, David Lillehaug thinks it is next to impossible for outsiders to quantify non-prosecuted "investigations" at the Department of Justice. Lillehaug, a Democrat who served as Minnesota's U.S. attorney during the Clinton administration, says that U.S. attorneys should be judged on the basis of verifiable records—in other words, whom they prosecute.

"I'm glad they [Shields and Cragan] are looking at this, but it's a pretty complicated enterprise," Lillehaug says. "Identifying targets is very difficult. It would be more useful to look only at prosecutions."

Unfortunately, Cragan and Shields did not separate their tally of prosecuted public corruption cases from the more nebulous tally of officials who were "under investigation."

"I wish I had," Cragan says. "If we could redo it, we would."

That said, Cragan insists his findings are fundamentally accurate. The Rybak case, he offers, was a close call. "Was he really under investigation or was he not? You read the press release on that," Cragan says. He acknowledges that there could be "another 20 [similar] cases" but doesn't think that matters much. "When you have 400 or so cases to start with, that data is not going to change. That's the theory of large numbers. When you take a larger and larger sample, the distribution becomes more stable. That's why we can predict elections before counting every ballot."

But by week's end, Cragan had reversed course and decided to excise Rybak from the list.

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