Hecker, Petters, and Pawlenty: Turkeys of the Year 2009
Minnesotans aren't known for drawing attention to themselves. This is a land where someone will ask you three times if you want something to eat, where merging is like a game of Blind Man's Bluff.
But this year brought a wealth of buffoons clamoring for attention. There was a senator who wouldn't go away, a governor intent on running for president, and way too many Ponzi schemers to count.
Thanksgiving is a time of reflection, when we count our blessings. We're thankful to bid adieu to these turkeys, although something tells us we may hear from some of them again in 2010.
Northwest Airlines Pilots
Flights across the Midwest always seem to drag on. There's nothing but endless swaths of farmland to gaze at though the window. There's a reason they call it fly-over country.
Pilots aboard Northwest Airlines flight 188 took this literally, overshooting the Minneapolis airport by 150 miles.
Captain Timothy Cheney and first officer Richard Cole missed the air-traffic controllers' and Northwest's dispatchers' numerous attempts to make contact with their plane for more than an hour. The flight was halfway across Wisconsin before the pilots realized their blunder, turned their Airbus A320 around, and headed for home, safely landing all 144 passengers.
When the plane finally reached the gate, armed airport security boarded the plane and detained the pilots for questioning. A stunned nation immediately feared the pilots were asleep behind the controls. The two eventually copped to being distracted by computerized flight schedules.
Their actions led to an immediate suspension and revocation of their pilot certificates. Both pilots have appealed the decision, and the final report on the investigation is forthcoming.
It has made us all rethink choosing Northwest, a company that hires turkeys to fly.
June 25, 2009, had Timberwolves fans excited. After surviving a disastrous season that saw the loss of star center Al Jefferson, the team was expected to score some much-needed talent from the NBA draft. Among the list of long shots was Ricky Rubio, a dashing young point guard from Spain.
With the floppy hair of a Jonas Brother and silky moves not seen since the days of Pistol Pete Maravich, Rubio was being talked about as a prodigy. He'd already backed up much of the hype by holding his own during the Olympics, out-flashing the likes of Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
So when Rubio dropped to No. 5 in the draft, the Wolves eagerly snapped him up. Seeing Rubio walk up to NBA commissioner David Stern and put a Timberwolves hat atop his goofy head nearly erased the pain of Kevin Garnett's departure to Boston.
But a day after the draft, Rubio's father sent a signal that his son would stay in Spain for another year. The crux of the problem was a gigantic buyout clause from his Spanish team, estimated at more than $5 million. Compounding the matter was an NBA collective bargaining agreement, a fancy term that prohibits a team from spending more than $500,000 toward a player's contract. So if the Timberwolves had a shot at Rubio, they had to find a way to work around league rules and obtain outside support to pony up millions.
Newly appointed GM David Kahn made several trips to Spain to try to coax Rubio to the Twin Cities. The extra effort proved fruitless. In the end, Rubio made the choice to stay in Spain, signing a new deal with FC Barcelona that gave him the option to leave for the NBA in 2011.
The silver lining in the whole Rubio mess was that it gave another promising point guard the opportunity to step up. Rubio takes our Turkey, but we'll happily share a drumstick with Jonny Flynn.
Paul J. Dolan
We'd love to be a fly on the wall at the Dolan family Thanksgiving dinner this year.
While Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan was dealing with a cornucopia of PR problems, including Taser-happy cops and charges of racial profiling, his brother Paul went out and got arrested for allegedly peddling drugs out of his mail truck.
The Turkey-worthy performance began on July 28 when a hidden camera caught Paul holed up in his Post Office van with a pipe to his mouth. Parked near the intersection of University and Raymond, Dolan was allegedly making special deliveries that had nothing to do with the mail.
Shortly after authorities got their hands on the video, Dolan was arrested and charged with selling dope while on the job. Upon raiding his home, officers uncovered more than 100 pot plants.
Charged with one count of possession of meth and one count of selling pot, Paul can't stay out of the headlines even as he awaits trial. Earlier this month, he told a judge he's broke and can't afford a private attorney—this despite owning six cars, including a Porsche.
Take Billy Carter and multiply him by Roger Clinton, and you're left staring at Paul Dolan.
Politicians are allowed their personal ambitions, of course, but in Pawlenty's transparently coy run for president, he has made decisions based on how they would play to the Republican base rather than what is best for his state.
This year's seriocomic budget battle was a prime example. Knowing that no Republican could win the party's nomination with a record of tax increases, Pawlenty drew a line in the sand and refused to discuss tax compromises even during one of the worst budget crises in state history. When his brick-wall stubbornness created a stalemate with the Legislature, Pawlenty reached into his constitutional bag of tricks and pulled out "unallotment," a process that allowed him to unilaterally slash $2.7 billion from the budget, much of it from education and health services for the poorest of the poor.
Minnesota was nearly alone among hard-hit states in not raising some taxes during the economic crisis, and Pawlenty's stance was at odds with other recent Minnesota Republican governors such as Al Quie and Arne Carlson, who understood the necessity of civilized compromise during hard times. Pawlenty's intransigence only postpones the most difficult decisions till the next budget cycle in 2011, when state deficits are projected to be nearly as huge as this year's.
What's more, Pawlenty's "no new taxes" mantra isn't even true. By hacking state aid to local governments (by about a billion dollars since Pawlenty took office, and $300 million this year), the governor has forced counties to raise property taxes to pay for basic services—by more than 11 percent during his term.
Let the nation have T-Paw—we don't want him.
Two years ago, 13 people died and 145 were injured when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed. The state has paid $37 million to people injured and families of those who died. A slew of lawsuits seek to assign responsibility—by the state against the two contractors blamed for the collapse, by the two contractors against the state, and by the families against both.
Yet the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) awarded the two contractors $50 million in new contracts.
We really can't think of anything dumber.
Last year, federal investigators placed blame for the collapse on poor engineering design, which was exacerbated by the excessive weight of construction materials placed on the bridge. San Francisco-based engineering consultant URS Corp. designed the connector plates that held the bridge's steel beams together. Progressive Contractors Inc. (PCI), which is based in Saint Michel, was re-surfacing the bridge when it collapsed on August 1, 2007.
Since the disaster, MnDOT has awarded both companies new projects. Neither company has made the list of firms disqualified from getting state jobs, so technically transportation officials don't have a legal reason to shut them out. But really—isn't one bridge disaster bad enough?
To make matters worse, MnDOT is moving like molasses to do work on bridges that have lower safety ratings than the 35W bridge did when it collapsed. MnDOT ranks bridges on a 100-point scale of structural adequacy. The failed 35W bridge had a score of 50 when it fell. In 2005, 71 bridges in the seven-county metro area scored even worse.
Among them: St. Paul's Lafayette, which spans the Mississippi near downtown, rated 49.5 in June. MnDOT says they'll get to it sometime next year.
The St. Paul-MinneapolisArchdiocese
It's been a rough decade for the Catholic Church. A hierarchy all too eager to cover up its employees' sins has compelled many of the faithful to flock to less creepy pastures in recent years.
Given the history, you'd think church higher-ups in Minnesota would go out of their way to help expose abusive priests past and present. But you'd be wrong.
In April, Minnesota's Catholic leaders issued a protective order to keep secret the identities of 46 former priests suspected of sexually abusing children at the St. Paul-Minneapolis and Winona Archdioceses.
The church's controversial move came during a lawsuit filed against the St. Paul-Minneapolis and Winona dioceses. Attorney Jeff Anderson accused leaders of suppressing information on an alleged sex abuser in the church. Anderson—who'd filed numerous suits alleging molestation by priests, and whose own daughter was abused decades ago by a clergyman—requested the hitherto undisclosed names be made public, arguing that the public safety was otherwise jeopardized.
Catholic brass disagreed and filed a protective order to prevent the disclosure. The motion was successful. To this day, the names remain sealed.
"They could still be in positions of authority or working with children," Anderson says. "It's an outrage. We feel that concealing the priests' names from the communities in which they continue to live and work puts the public at risk."
Pastor John Piper
We usually think of tornadoes as a rural phenomenon, tearing through a few farmhouses before disappearing into the summer night. It's not often that twisters cause widespread damage to a city.
But on August 19, tornadoes came to town in a big way, touching down in the early afternoon south of downtown Minneapolis.
Within 15 minutes, an estimated 4,600 power outages stretched across the metro. By the time everything wrapped up, 250 city trees had been felled and 40 homes were damaged by the destructive winds.
The storm struck on the same day that 2,000 members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America were convening to discuss opening their ministry to gays and lesbians. When the whirlwinds damaged 1,800 square feet of the Minneapolis Convention Center's roof, the uncanny timing wasn't lost on the anti-gay forces. Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church claimed that the storm was God's warning to the ELCA to "turn from the approval of sin."
The church instead embraced gay and lesbian clergy, and the skies remain sunny.
Colleen and Tony Hauser
The Bad Parenting Hall of Fame is divided into two wings: parents who are truly bad and parents who mean well but are hopelessly misguided. This year Minnesota inducted another mom and pop into the latter category—Colleen and Tony Hauser, the parents of a 13-year-old boy, Daniel, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Though Daniel's form of cancer is highly treatable, his parents refused medical help, saying it was against their religious beliefs. As members of an obscure, quasi-Native American spiritual group, they insisted on treating their son with a natural—and wholly unproven—remedy of herbs and ionized water.
As a result, the state was forced to step in and try to save Daniel from his own flesh and blood. At trial, it was revealed that with chemotherapy Daniel stood a 90 percent chance of living, but without it, a 95 percent chance of dying.
His parents, naturally, chose to gamble their son's life on that 5 percent. After just one chemotherapy treatment, Colleen Hauser grabbed her son and fled the state, prompting a massive nationwide idiot hunt. After wasting the time of the FBI and customs agents for a solid week, Colleen and Daniel finally surrendered in Los Angeles, where they were supposedly on their way to Mexico.
The story at least has a happy ending: After completing his chemotherapy treatments this month, Daniel was pronounced healthy and cancer-free. And thanks to the balloon-boy saga, he only has the second stupidest parents on Earth.
As if the whole Al Franken-Norm Coleman recount wasn't bad enough in 2008, Norm and Al had to drag the drama through half of 2009. Meanwhile, we Minnesotans were left without a junior senator for eight months, making us the laughingstock of the nation.
On January 3, elections officials kicked off the year by finishing their recount of wrongly rejected absentee ballots from November's election.
Franken came out ahead by 225 votes.
Coleman filed a lawsuit challenging the recount results. Franken challenged Coleman's right to sue. While thousands of Minnesotans fumed in frustration, the court politely affirmed Coleman's right to the most ungraceful exit in modern political times.
In April, after seven weeks of trial, 2,200 exhibits, and 134 witnesses, Franken's lead over Coleman widened to 312 votes. But Coleman prolonged the battle for months with an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Finally, the tiresome saga ended on June 30, when the court rejected Coleman's appeal.
We think MAD magazine put it best in a spoof of Cialis advertisements featuring the two candidates reclining in bathtubs: "When the time comes to concede defeat, will you be ready?"
Metro Gang Strike Force
The level of incompetence and corruption displayed by the infamous Metro Gang Strike Force would be laughable were the implications not so dire.
The Strike Force was supposed to work like this: Multiple police departments across the metro provided a few of their best guys. The resulting multi-departmental unit—ostensibly a sort of gang-fighting Dream Team—investigated, monitored, and broke up gangs. Upon nabbing a dope-peddling gangbanger, officers confiscated the accompanying drugs, paraphernalia, and ill-gotten goods.
There was just one problem: No one was keeping track of the inventory. When the state auditor announced in May that an investigation into the Strike Force's inner workings would soon be underway, a handful of officers hightailed it to the unit's New Brighton offices, where they shredded documents and destroyed computer files.
That was suspicious enough to compel both the FBI and the Department of Public Safety to launch investigations.
In August, the department released its long-awaited report, and it wasn't pretty. The Strike Force, contrary to its name, wasn't dedicated to fighting gangs. At least not "gangs" as they are commonly defined. Rather, Strike Force members seemed to take "gang members" to mean "any person of color." The Strike Force "saturated" (their term) predominately black neighborhoods, where arresting officers had free reign. Teenagers carrying small baggies of personal-use pot—normally a $200 misdemeanor—had their wallets confiscated, supposedly as evidence.
On many occasions, according to the report, officers accosted law-abiding residents and went through their cell phones, the Fourth Amendment be damned. In addition, Strike Force members snapped mug shots of numerous individuals, including minors, despite lacking evidence to charge them with anything.
The looting went well beyond shaking down the occasional 15-year-old. During searches and seizures, Strike Force officers routinely confiscated, for their own personal use, highly valuable luxury items. The plunder included flat-screen televisions, laptops, jewelry, and jet skis—items "officers and their family members were permitted to purchase, at low prices," according to the findings.
Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines a gang as "a group of persons working to unlawful or antisocial ends." The Metro Gang Strike Force, as it turned out, was precisely that.
On the surface, the owner of Sun Country Airlines and Polaroid Corp. was a wildly successful businessman whose pious Christian streak ingratiated him to myriad movers and shakers throughout Minnesota. But that facade came crumbling down in October of last year after he was arrested for orchestrating the largest Ponzi scheme in American history (Bernie Madoff stole the show just weeks later).
Petters was put on trial for bilking some $3.65 billion out of investors taken in by his slick persona. The courtroom proceedings have provided a bounty of details from one of the most prolific hucksters in the state's history: phony purchase orders, fake warehouses, money-laundering schemes, and, of course, an affair with an in-over-her-head underling.
Petters serves as an almost too-perfect summation of the colossal waste, greed, and lack of self-awareness that have come to define our times. At the end of each email to his subordinates, Petters included a quote from Henry David Thoreau:
"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler."
Petters undoubtedly lived the life he imagined. Unfortunately for him, the laws of the universe—which include the laws of mathematics—were not subject to his whimsy.
Bankrupt automobile magnate Denny Hecker would have been high on our Turkey list just for the monumental collapse of his business empire. Hecker not only owes creditors a mind-blowing $767 million dollars, but the epic failure of his wildly over-leveraged conglomerate has put hundreds of Minnesotans out of work and led to a raft of legal charges, including money laundering, conspiracy, mail and bankruptcy fraud, and siphoning business funds for personal use.
But that's not why he's No. 1. Hecker is guilty of a far more heinous crime: exposing us all to Too Much Information.
The unfortunate side effect of his spectacular fall has been a series of way-too-detailed bankruptcy filings and divorce papers, which have forced the public to confront the grotesqueries of Hecker's personal life. We've heard about his mistress and her $60,000 fur coat, his four marriages and divorces, his planned $9,500 facelift, his gambling trips to Vegas, and his obnoxiously extravagant lifestyle: a personal jet, a 53-foot yacht, a collection of 30 watches (including five Rolexes), and a multimillion-dollar mansion and five vacation homes.
Minnesotans can accept a pompous rich guy running his business into the ground. But the image in our minds of a toad-bellied, taut-faced Hecker lounging shirtless on his yacht while cavorting with his mistress— that, sir, can never be forgiven.
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