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Smoke Screen

Firefighter Mike Beaulieu says he can't believe the issue of "Hollywood Indians" has come up again
Siddiqi Ray

Last March, after eight short months on the job, new Minneapolis fire chief Rocco Forte hired the most diverse group of new firefighters in the city's history: Of the 94 cadets signed on, 25 were racial minorities and 11 were female. It seemed a new era had finally begun for the Minneapolis Fire Department, which for the past 27 years has been under court order to diversify its ranks. Even the department's staunchest critics were lauding Forte for walking his talk.

"Forte has the ability to listen to and to accept recommendations for change," Ron Edwards, head of the court-appointed Firefighters Steering Advisory Committee, told City Pages at the time. "He is to be congratulated because of the sincere commitment he is exhibiting in trying to bring about meaningful change." In turn, the chief praised the watchdog panel for keeping the department on track.

The honeymoon was nice while it lasted. Shortly after the new cadets started fighting mock fires at the training facility, the group that oversees the court-ordered integration effort quietly launched an investigation into whether staffers had failed to ascertain that applicants who had identified themselves as Native American could produce the required verification. Publicly, city officials say they are satisfied that the applicants' background was properly examined. But according to documents obtained by City Pages, the city has conceded that mistakes were made.

This isn't the first time the city has been hit with this particular allegation. Five years ago Larry Blackwell, then the city's director of affirmative action, informed the MFD that six of seven fire captains and investigators hired under the department's integration plan as Native American hadn't provided the city-required documentation. Two of the six listed their status as white on city forms after being hired, Blackwell told City Pages at the time ("Not His Forte?," July 8, 1998).

One of those two was James Rodger Sr., who has since been promoted to one of the department's deputy-chief positions. The matter of Rodger's background has never been sorted out; the controversy was quelled in 1994 when city attorneys ruled that civil-service guidelines didn't allow them to enforce the verification procedures for firefighters hired before 1991. Nevertheless, the issue continued to irk integration proponents, and when word got out that Rodger's son, James Jr., was a member of the MFD's new class, the dispute erupted anew.

In 1979, when a federal judge ordered the MFD to diversify, he appointed a volunteer panel to keep tabs on the process. In August two members of the panel, both representing the Minnesota American Indian Firefighters Association, brought their concerns to the lawyer representing the minority job applicants. Association president Mike Beaulieu and his colleague Leonard Thompson asked Legal Aid attorney Rick Macpherson to get data showing how the tribal membership of Native American cadets had been verified, according to committee documents.

In response to his inquiry, Macpherson says, city officials gave him a chart displaying data on each hire. The data, he asserts, was a mess. Some of the numbers on the forms didn't add up, and some of the applicants appeared to have been hired without providing the right documentation. Plus, "One individual was known to the committee [from previous controversies], so that set off red flags," he says.

(Macpherson and members of the advisory committee contacted for this story refused to disclose the names of MFD applicants and employees, citing a confidentiality agreement. In an interview, Macpherson referred to the controversial applicant as R.R.; city files on the hiring process indicate that R.R. is James Rodger Jr. "When we're talking about R.R.," says Macpherson, "we're talking about someone everybody knew. And they knew there were problems.")

The city established its verification rules for applicants claiming Native American background in 1985, though they were not put into use until 1991. Applicants must produce an enrollment number from a federally recognized tribe for themselves, a parent, or a grandparent; city officials are then supposed to make sure that an applicant's number is correct or that he or she is indeed a descendant of someone with a valid number. Similar procedures are used to examine applicants' claims of veteran or disabled status.

The verification process is the responsibility of the city's Department of Human Resources, which compiles lists of eligible candidates for MFD jobs. As it happens, however, Native American applicants aren't verified by a department staffer; the double-checking is done by Valerie Sheehan, the city's Native American community advocate. Macpherson says he asked Sheehan to come before the advisory committee and explain how she verified applicants' status. He says she refused and the city wouldn't force her to appear, so last month he subpoenaed her for a lengthy deposition.

Sheehan declined to comment for this article. In her deposition, she said she reviewed Rodger's application, which contained a copy of his grandmother's Wisconsin birth certificate listing her race as "Indian." Sheehan added that she had questions about the case, chiefly because Rodger told her the grandmother was Cherokee, a tribe that doesn't have a strong presence in Wisconsin. "I questioned him as to how he figures he's Cherokee when it states on the birth certificate that they were from Wisconsin. And he said to me well, he's Cherokee and I said, 'Are you sure, it could be Chippewa.' He said, 'No, it's Cherokee,' and I said, 'Okay.'"  

Sheehan also said she called Rodger repeatedly to ask that he sign a release form allowing her to verify his claim, but he never returned her calls. "When I called the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Wisconsin, without a release they refused to talk to me. So I determined that he was American Indian on the basis of those birth certificates, but I didn't follow my own protocol." Sheehan also acknowledged that Rodger's grandmother is listed as white on her daughter's birth certificate.

Chief Forte was out of town at press time. But Assistant Chief Ulie Seal says privacy laws prevent the department from commenting on any individual employees or job applicants. In general, Seal says, the MFD is satisfied that the status of all of the Native American firefighter candidates was verified. "Our belief right now is that everyone who has been verified has been verified correctly," he says. "The preponderance of the evidence shows that these people are Native American."

Both Macpherson and advisory committee chair Ron Edwards say it's clear that Sheehan was given no direction by the city's human resources department. "She didn't work for Human Resources," notes Macpherson. "She just volunteered [to do the verifications] and at some point Human Resources said, 'Okay.' But they didn't give her any instructions or supervision.

"It's their job to take care of this," the lawyer adds. "If those fingers are pointed at her by Human Resources, they're trying to divert attention from their own culpability." Edwards says he, too, fears Sheehan will be scapegoated: "She's a person of color, and that automatically makes her the most accessible person to blame."

Following Sheehan's questioning, Macpherson wrote to Burt Osborne, the assistant city attorney assigned to the matter, noting that her testimony suggested that the city's statistics on the racial makeup of the MFD were inaccurate. Macpherson also wanted to know what the city planned to do about Rodger. He says that if the deputy chief's son is ultimately found not to be Native American, the city needs to consider what to do about the two minority applicants dropped from the list (one at each stage of the hiring process) as a result of his hiring. Rodger would not have been eligible for the job, Macpherson notes, if he hadn't been included in the process as a person of color via a system called expanded certification.

"The city's decision to permit Mr. Rodger to continue to use expanded certification is particularly troubling in light of the history concerning Mr. Rodger's father," he wrote. "The city's representatives, including Chief Forte, who selected Mr. Rodger Jr., should have known that his claim that he met the requirements...was problematic at best."

On October 26 Osborne responded that "there are several issues that need to be addressed" regarding the verification process. But, he wrote, the city had no intention of changing the makeup of the cadet class. Assistant Chief Seal adds that the department is proud of the diversity of its current workforce. "We've met the intent" of the court decree, he says, "even if we may not be able to satisfy everyone."

But Macpherson says the city has been making that particular argument for a decade and a half now--and still hasn't drawn any conclusions over how to handle the matter in the future. Consistent, accurate figures are crucial if minority hiring programs are to continue, he says: If the number of Native Americans and other groups on the public payroll is inflated, the city could justify abandoning special minority-recruiting efforts. Edwards adds that he expects the issue to be discussed when Forte comes up for reappointment in January.

Committee member Mike Beaulieu, for his part, says he is stunned the issue has arisen again. Beaulieu became one of the department's first Native American firefighters 28 years ago; in 1994, when questions first arose about Rodger Sr., he lost his temper at a public meeting on the men he has referred to as "Hollywood Indians." "So what you are saying is, if anyone wants to be a Native American, he just needs a note from his mother?" he asked.

Now, two years away from retirement, Beaulieu is getting bitter. "It's unbelievable that it's the year 2000 soon and they're still doing this," he says. "I think it's racist for them to say we should just shake hands and make up."  

Editor's note: This story was first published on November 5 in City Pages' online edition (www.citypages.com).

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