Kill the Messenger

Dawn Villella

The long and very public hemorrhage of Minneapolis's largest neighborhood association, People of Phillips (PoP), has seeped into legislation at the state Capitol. Tucked into the omnibus data privacy bill is a provision that would bar cities and school districts from releasing the results of their investigations before officials have a chance to scrutinize them.

Supporters maintain that the measure is simply intended to protect whistleblowers, but detractors say that's a red herring. If passed, they argue, the provision would bar the public from scrutinizing a broad category of documents for no reason other than officials' fear of embarrassment.

By all accounts, the storm centers around the identity of the neighborhood whistleblower who in October 1996 tipped off the Minneapolis auditor's office to financial problems within PoP. (Similar information had been previously reported in City Pages--"A Phillips Affair," 9/18/96.) When the auditors began an investigation, says Minneapolis city attorney Jim Moore, one of the individuals targeted demanded to know who'd told on him.

That's when the city discovered that, while the state auditor's office was allowed to keep preliminary audit information confidential, city investigations were open to the public. The city declined to divulge the source's identity anyway, but Moore says officials asked him to draw up a provision that would protect sources in the future. The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, easily won passage in House and Senate committees and is headed for floor votes.

Minneapolis Director of Finance John Moir says the bill would bring city procedures in line with guidelines from the national Institute of Internal Audits, under which "everything is confidential," he says. And, he insists, keeping preliminary information out of the public arena will protect "innocent sources" and those "falsely accused." "We don't want to go back to the days of the McCarthy hearings," Moir warns.

That's a bit of a stretch, says Mark Anfinson, general counsel for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, who testified against the bill at a recent hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Data Privacy and Information Policy. If officials really wanted to protect confidential sources, Anfinson says, "all they'd have to do is add some language to current law."

Instead, he says, they have chosen to remove the entire audit process from public scrutiny. With no outsiders watching, Anfinson argues, city auditors--who essentially investigate their own employers--will be under pressure to be "less than honest."

Rich Neumeister, a public-access advocate who also testified at the subcommittee hearing, says the bill contradicts politicians' accountability rhetoric. "The government is closest to people at the city and school-district levels," he notes, "and [internal audits are] how people know where, when and how their tax dollars are being spent." Under the provision, he says, "negotiations will go on behind closed doors, and the public won't be in tune with a process that uses a lot of their money."

"That's conspiracy theory 101," rejoins the city's Moir. "There are always going to be people who want to believe that the government's trying to hide things." Moir says Anfinson's and Neumeister's concerns were addressed during committee discussions on the bill, when lawmakers added language allowing state and legislative auditors access to preliminary audit reports.

But in Anfinson's view, these kinds of internal checks amount to asking the fox to guard the chicken coop. "Experience has taught us time and again," he insists, "that having the government police itself just doesn't work."

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