On January 23, the Minnesota Financial Crimes Oversight Committee was slated to participate in a strategic planning session. The 16-member body, charged with overseeing the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, wanted to assess the statewide law enforcement body's effectiveness and future needs. Created in 1999, the task force investigates identity theft and other financial crimes.
Four days before the planned strategy session, however, the committee's members received an email from an employee at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety notifying them that the strategy session had been canceled. They were informed that the gathering would instead be a regular oversight committee meeting.
On the day before the scheduled gathering, members of the committee received word of another change: Minneapolis Sgt. Chris Abbas, commander of the financial crimes task force, was being transferred out of the unit. They also learned that two investigators, Jack Talbot and Mark Johnson, planned to resign from the task force in protest.
By the time the oversight committee—which includes police officers, prosecutors, elected officials, and business representatives—convened last month, its members were bewildered. Under state law, they believed, only the oversight committee had the authority to remove the leader of the task force. "It was a significant surprise," says John McCullough, business coordinator for the Retailers Protection Association and a member of the committee. "It was out of the blue. We didn't really understand where it was coming from."
It eventually became clear that the personnel move was orchestrated by a fellow committee member, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Michael Campion. "He initially denied that he had any involvement in it," recalls Dana Smyser, a retired Minneapolis cop and a former chairman of the oversight council, who was present at the January 23 meeting. "But as the discussion went on it became clear that he was directly involved."
Indeed, it turned out that Campion had discussed concerns regarding Abbas's leadership of the task force with the Minneapolis Police Department. According to MPD deputy chief Val Wurster, the local law enforcement agency had heard complaints about Abbas—one knock is that he didn't coordinate various law enforcement agencies very well—from other quarters as well. "We have to take that seriously and take action on that," she says. Based on those conversations, the MPD decided to transfer Abbas to the sex crimes unit. It's not surprising that the local law enforcement agency would jump at Campion's behest. "Let's face it," says Smyser, "the Minneapolis Police Department receives a sizable chunk of funding from things that are controlled by the Department of Public Safety."
Members of the oversight committee were livid when they discovered what had happened. State Sen. Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley), another committee member, characterizes Campion's actions as a "complete abuse of power and disregard for the law by our state's top cop." He notes that Abbas has been instrumental in establishing the task force as a credible investigative agency and is one of the foremost experts on financial crimes in the state. "The only winners out of this are the identity thieves," he says. "These criminals are now going to be left unchecked."
The financial crimes task force was initially created in 1999 in response to escalating concerns about identity theft and financial fraud. Two years ago the 16-member oversight council was formed to provide accountability for the law-enforcement body. The statute creating the oversight council states that one of its duties is to "select a statewide commander of the task force who serves at the pleasure of the oversight council." The statute also directs that the chosen officer shall "remain in place as its commander until July 1, 2008." In the 12-month-period that ended June 30, 2006, investigations by the task force resulted in 407 people being charged with 1,927 crimes. In addition, its work helped produce 16 federal indictments.
Campion denies that he has done anything wrong. The commissioner admits that he went to Minneapolis with concerns about Abbas's performance, but insists that his actions were completely justified. Campion, however, declines to get into specifics about the former commander's shortcomings. However, he maintains that the integrity of the financial crimes task force is unchecked. "One person being reassigned, I don't think allows for identity thieves to run wild," he says.
The Minneapolis Police Department also stresses that it's committed to providing whatever help is necessary to maintain a credible investigative body. "We certainly don't want to see a task force that many believe has been helpful simply disappear into the ether," says Wurster. "We want to make sure that our contribution to the task force is appropriate and effective."
The chair of the oversight committee, Anoka County Attorney Bob Johnson, continues to support Campion. "While people may agree or disagree with what Michael Campion might do, I'm confident that Michael is doing what he thinks is in the best interests of law enforcement in the state," he says.
The task force personnel directly involved in the dispute—Abbas, Mark Johnson, and Talbot—aren't talking; none of them returned three calls from City Pages seeking comment. "They're dragged into the middle of this political power play," notes Smyser. "Everybody's keeping their head down, trying to do their job, waiting to see where the dust settles." (Johnson and Talbot initially indicated that they would resign over the shuffling, but so far have stayed on board.)
Since news of the controversial personnel move became public, steps have been taken to make sure the task force continues to function. Minneapolis has agreed to let Abbas remain with the body as an investigator for at least another month. In the meantime, Mark Johnson has been appointed interim commissioner and a search for a permanent leader has been established. "I just want to see this task force be successful," says Bob Johnson, the Anoka County attorney. "There's no magic formula for how it's going to be successful."
Chaudhary, meanwhile, intends to take a series of legislative steps in response to Campion's actions. He plans to introduce legislation that would change the funding agency for the task force to either the state Department of Commerce or the Attorney General's Office. Chaudhary also intends to seek funding so that the task force can hire its own investigators. Right now the investigative body is dependent on other law enforcement agencies, such as the MPD, to provide staffing. The personnel issue is also likely to surface at Campion's confirmation hearings at the Capitol, which were scheduled for last week but postponed.
The root of the clash between Campion and Abbas remains something of a mystery. "The board members are all scratching their heads with this one," says McCullough, the business rep. However, Smyser says that Campion has repeatedly treated Abbas with disdain. "I don't know what else to term it but a screw job," he says. "And I don't know that there was ever any stated rationale as to what motivated it."