House of Buggin'

THE BUG DISCOVERED at Minneapolis City Hall last week was prima facie evidence of the deep paranoia afflicting city leaders; by the time Monday's flurry of press conferences rolled around, the only commodity in greater supply there than reporters was conspiracy theories.

In keeping with the atmosphere of skullduggery, council members surreptitiously pointed fingers after receiving assurances of confidentiality. Those on the outs with Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton (who allegedly claimed to know that Council member Steve Minn and KSTP-TV reporter Jay Kolls had discussed an anti-Sayles Belton story in Minn's office five days before a bug was discovered there) constructed a theory that was both damning and dismissive: The mayor didn't actually have the skill to organize any spying, but may have benefited from a sympathetic henchperson.

A surprising number played Blame-the-Victim, fingering Minn himself in what they spun as a cheap grab for sympathy by one of the council's few non-DFLers. "Why does he think he's so important that someone would want to know what he's saying?" asked one bitter colleague, unintentionally providing insight into the enmity that may have made Minn a target in the first place.

Other potential intriguers cited in City Hall rumblings, where practically everyone is a player in someone else's conspiratorial fantasy: city unions, whose pensions Minn has aggressively tried to trim, and whose maintenance employees have after-hours access to council offices; Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, twice the victim of Minn's stealth maneuvers, when he successfully installed a new head of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency and also when he helped pass an alternative city budget in 1994; and Council member Dore Mead, with whom Minn has feuded over 35-W expansion and welfare hotels on the border of their territories.

Cooler heads clung to the hope that the bug was a vestige of City Hall's bad old days; younger council members, such as Joe Biernat, voiced wan hopes; older representatives breezily spun tales of past city officials who bugged friends and adversaries during the decades when J. Edgar Hoover raised intergovernmental snooping to a high art at the federal level.

As JFK conspiracists well know, politicians generate enough enemies to fuel endless motives. On Monday authorities were downplaying the likelihood that a culprit would ever be caught, but that only fueled Bug-gate's appeal, in effect making City Hall into a human-scale approximation of the board game Clue.

KSTP-TV reporter Jay Kolls has provided the clearest circumstantial evidence linking Sayles Belton to the Minn bug. Kolls interviewed the mayor on November 6 about a conflict-of-interest story concerning the mayor's trip to Iburaki, Japan, which was partially paid for by the nonprofit Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitor's Bureau (GMCVA).

With Kolls's camera rolling, the mayor repeatedly asserted that Minn was propelling the allegations. Kolls claims the mayor went even further when cameraman Tim Jones turned off his equipment, telling him, "We know you've been in [Minn's] office talking about this." Five days later, Minn found the bug after Kolls and Strib reporter Kevin Diaz wondered how the mayor had known so much and voiced their concerned to Minn.

Mayoral Press Secretary Mary Pattock, who sat in on Kolls's interview with Sayles Belton, says her boss had ample reason to believe Minn was pushing the story, but claims Sayles Belton said nothing about knowing where Kolls and Minn talked. But Pattock's denial is less than absolute: "That does not sound familiar," she says of the disputed utterance.

It does seem odd that the ever-aggressive KSTP troops would turn off a camera during a contentious interview in which Sayles Belton repeatedly and aggressively blamed Minn for her plight. Kolls says that was because he was not interested in the political infighting, merely the substance of the conflict-of-interest allegations. Lending credence to Kolls's claim is that his November 6 report--aired five days before the bug was discovered--omitted any footage of the mayor attacking Minn.

After news of the bug broke, however, Kolls did appear to tart up the goods a bit. During a 6 p.m. report this past Monday, Kolls again asserted that Sayles Belton knew he and Minn had talked in Minn's office. Kolls then rolled video of the mayor's accusations that Minn was the source. The rapid-fire sequence made it appear that the mayor was confirming what Kolls had told the audience she had told him; however, only a careful viewer could discern that the mayor said absolutely nothing about where a Minn-Kolls conversation took place.

Kolls acknowledges that Sayles Belton had legitimate avenues to get wind of claims that Minn was the source of the original story. According to Pattock, Minn had called the mayor's office for an Iburaki itinerary on November 3 (which, curiously for open government, was denied), only to have Kolls call for it a few hours later. Still, Kolls vigorously denies the mayor's statement that she learned of the KSTP-Minn connection from GMCVA chief Greg Ortale. "I never talked to Greg Ortale, and I never told anyone at the GMCVA that Steve Minn was my source--I wouldn't ever do that and risk my professional reputation," says Kolls.

If the episode remains an enigma, some blame may belong to the Minneapolis Police Department's initial investigation. According to one knowledgeable source, officers who arrived on the scene late Friday afternoon wound up plucking the bug out of Minn's air vent with their bare hands, and did not promptly dust it for fingerprints--"a chain of evidence that would've made Mark Fuhrman proud," one council member sniped.

Furthermore, police did not cordon off City Hall offices--which had, after all, become a crime scene--over the weekend, which provided ample opportunity for other bugs to be removed. "They clearly did not take this seriously at first," says the council member.

An added detail: One eyewitness reports that when the bug was removed, it was, contrary to published reports, "not that dusty." And a source told the Star Tribune that the air ducts had almost certainly been serviced since Minn took office, making it seem unlikely that it had languished there for years. Despite the current council's hopes that the bug is a relic of seamier days, it's far more likely that the person who planted it walks the halls there still.

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