The Third Man
As details of the Brian Herron extortion scandal emerge, one question at the heart of the case remains unanswered: Who is the Minneapolis businessman who acted as a middleman between Herron and Selwin Ortega, the Las Americas supermarket owner from whom the former Eighth Ward city council member admitted extorting $10,000? According to an FBI affidavit detailing the evidence against Herron, Herron referred Ortega to this businessman in October of 1998 and explained that the businessman would tell Ortega how Herron "did business." But although the FBI recorded numerous subsequent meetings between the businessman and Ortega, the man is never named in documents released by the U.S. Attorney's office.
According to the affidavit, during one of those recorded meetings, on April 29, 1999, the businessman "described to Ortega how powerful the city council is in the City of Minneapolis and how important it is to establish a good relationship with Councilperson Herron." Ortega later told FBI agents that the businessman had told him he'd given Herron $5,000 in cash and gifts in exchange for preferential treatment from the city. During an unrecorded conversation a week earlier, the affidavit states, the same businessman suggested that Ortega forgive an outstanding $4,000 debt Herron owed Ortega, part of a $7,000 loan Ortega had extended to the council member in May 1998.
In the wake of Herron's indictment, the scope of the former council member's under-the-table dealings is becoming clearer. This past week, for instance, it was revealed that Herron had accepted $2,000 last summer from Chicago Avenue used-car dealer Manouchehr Dousti. (In his confession, Herron called the payment a bribe; the Star Tribune quoted Dousti's attorney as saying that it was part of a $5,000 loan for funeral expenses.) Yet the identity of the other businessman--who, according to the FBI affidavit, acted as Herron's agent in his dealings with Ortega--has remained the subject of speculation. Through his attorney, Jordan Kushner, Ortega declines to identify the man. Assistant U.S. attorney Michael Ward also offers no comment on the ongoing federal investigation.
But phone records from Herron's office, obtained by City Pages under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, shed light on the mysterious businessman's identity.
According to the FBI's affidavit, the businessman met with Ortega on February 21 of this year. During the conversation, which was recorded by the FBI but which was not included in transcripts provided to the public, Ortega asked the businessman to lobby Herron on his behalf, whereupon the businessman called Herron's office from his cellular phone.
Herron's phone logs indicate that at 2:30 p.m. that day, real estate developer Basim Sabri called the council member's office to discuss the Las Americas situation. The message was logged by Vickie Ann Brock, Herron's aide (and now a candidate for his vacant council seat), and reads: "RE: Los Americaus [sic] and the inspection orders. Vickie has your office had any contact with inspections on this matter [?]. They have been sited [sic] with 16-20 inspection items on their buildings. I am working with them to resolve some of the problems."
The phone records are maintained by city council staff and document all incoming phone calls and voicemail messages received by Herron's office (though not calls made to the former council member's personal cell phone). Of the 19 calls logged on February 21, Sabri's was the only one that referred to Las Americas.
FBI agents state in the affidavit that the businessman and Ortega met again three days later and were again recorded by the FBI. During this second meeting, the affidavit states, the businessman called Herron and left a message. (This call does not appear in Herron's phone log.) When the council member returned the call, the businessman told him that he "needed a big favor" and that someone was "'fucking' with" Ortega, according to the affidavit. "After the call between the businessman and Herron concluded," the affidavit continues, "the businessman told Ortega that Councilperson Herron said he would find out who was 'fucking' with Ortega."
A spokesman for Sabri's company, Sabri Properties, referred all questions to the developer's attorney, Andy Birrell, who did not return two phone calls seeking comment on Monday.
Sabri had acted as an intermediary between Ortega and city officials before. In a July 20 article, the Star Tribune reported that, after attempting to give a city inspector $300 worth of gift certificates to Mystic Lake Casino in 1999, Ortega told the inspector that his "good friend" Sabri had recommended the inspector as "a good person."
Also, this past April 11, Sabri spoke on Ortega's behalf before the city council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, which was considering whether to revoke the grocer's licenses. According to a transcript of that meeting, Sabri asserted that the city's actions represented "an anger and accumulation of resentment toward Mr. Ortega's violations." Giving Ortega one more chance to comply with city inspectors, Sabri continued, wouldn't mean that "the Minneapolis Health Department is going to fall apart and everybody is going to die and get poisoned tomorrow." (The health code violations city inspectors cited at Las Americas included rodents, moldy food, and "personal hygiene violations.")
Ortega's cause was also supported at the April 11 meeting by Al Garcia, a Minneapolis attorney and lobbyist with close ties to city council president Jackie Cherryhomes. Garcia, who is registered to lobby for Las Americas Inc., asked the committee to delay revoking Ortega's license. Finally, Ortega spoke in his own defense. "So, you know, I made mistakes," he told the committee, "but part of the difference you can see now on Lake Street and [in] south Minneapolis is because some of the things that we have done, so I want you to take that into consideration." The city council committee was unimpressed, though, and referred the matter to an administrative law judge.
It's not the first time Sabri has been at the center of controversy. For the past two years, the developer has been steadily acquiring real estate in Minneapolis's Central neighborhood (which is bounded by I-35W, Lake Street, Chicago Avenue, and 38th Street); he now owns a half-dozen properties, including three buildings within a block of Ortega's Lake Street Las Americas. While he has been lauded for revitalizing the down-at-heel neighborhood, Sabri has also been accused of using strong-arm tactics and stacking neighborhood meetings to suit his agenda--particularly with regard to a proposed hotel development between Lake Street and I-35W.
Sabri has also had extensive dealings with the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA), the city-council-directed bureaucracy whose purpose is to promote housing and economic development. In 1999, for instance, the MCDA sold Sabri a building at 301 E. Lake Street for $68,000 after the staff recommended Sabri's development plan over a competing bid. One of Sabri's staunchest allies within city hall was Brian Herron, who was quoted in a May 16 City Pages cover story about Sabri as saying that he had established "a good working relationship" with the developer.
In light of Herron's admission of corruption, the nature of this relationship has become the subject of intense scrutiny. Sixth Ward city council candidate Barb Lickness says she was questioned by FBI agents on July 20 about both Ortega's and Sabri's business dealings. And last week the U.S. Attorney's Office subpoenaed city inspections and licensing records relating to Sabri, as well as documents from the city's Neighborhood Revitalization Program and the MCDA.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ward explains that his office does not identify a person in public documents unless that person has been charged with a crime. This "unindicted co-conspirator rule," he says, is designed to ensure the presumption of innocence: "If someone may be involved in criminal activity and there have been no formal allegations, we're not going to name them. We don't want to publicly incriminate them without letting them defend themselves in court." But according to Ward, the fact that federal investigators have not named the businessman does not preclude the possibility of further indictments.
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