Last Man Standing
In 1989, Betty Jean Burns was in court on charges of attempted murder. She had confessed to stabbing her boyfriend, Sheldon Geshick. He'd accused her from his hospital bed. It seemed like an open-and-shut case.
But after a week of arguments, Burns went free. The jury had heard testimony about how Geshick's brain injury prevented him from speaking rationally. Burns had told them she confessed after being alone in a room for hours with a sergeant who slammed his fist on the table and threw a chair. Two witnesses said they'd seen a man they knew stab Geshick. (An investigation would later conclude that they were right.)
The case ended up making international headlines when the jury wrote a letter of collective outrage to county, police, and city authorities. But in every other way, it was perfectly run-of-the-mill. Like most criminal defendants in Hennepin County, Burns was too poor to hire a lawyer. What kept her out of prison was that her public defender, Renee Bergeron, had the experience, the time, and the resources to take her case to trial. The reason she could, Bergeron says, is best summarized in two words: Bill Kennedy.
For 25 years, Kennedy--the only chief public defender Hennepin County has ever had--has pushed, fought, cajoled and pleaded for what he calls "the people's law firm." He's inspired fierce loyalty among his staff, and admiration from a lot of observers. Many consider his office one of the best in the country.
But Kennedy has also made enemies. He can be abrasive, in-your-face, intimidating. He's been called a cog in the wheels, an ideologue, a troublemaker. Now he's up for reappointment and a fierce behind-the-scenes battle has erupted over whether he or assistant county attorney Bill McGee should get the job. As the deadline approaches--the state board is slated to vote on the appointment Thursday--the air in the courthouse has gotten thick with dark rumors. And it's becoming clear that the fight is over a lot more than a job.
The right for poor people to have a lawyer when they're accused of crimes doesn't go as far back as you might think. Though the Constitution guarantees access to counsel, it wasn't until 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case called Gideon vs. Wainwright, that the right was extended to state courts, where most crimes are charged.
Thirty-three years later, public defense in a lot of places doesn't look like what the Supreme Court may have envisioned. The system is full of stories of lawyers meeting their clients for the first time in the courtroom minutes before their case comes up. Of plea bargains by the bushel to keep cases moving along. Of defenders who burn out and drop out as soon as they've got some experience.
In 1989, the state of Minnesota commissioned the Spangenberg Group, a Massachusetts consulting firm, to study the health of public defense here. It found that defenders were "devoting minimal time to their cases"--less, in fact, than those in any other state or district the firm had ever studied. They worked "substantially above capacity with insufficient time to devote to their clients. Workload [was] too high in every district.... And things [were] getting worse."
And it wasn't, the report noted, skyrocketing crime that had created this situation. Changes in the economy meant that more defendants were found indigent--some 80 percent statewide, and 95 percent in the urban districts. At the same time, politicians kept coming up with new laws. ("Crime," one Hennepin County defender grumbles, "is the one area where a liberal can be racist and not be called on it.") Practically every year for the past decade, the Legislature has increased penalties, created new felonies, made gross misdemeanors out of misdemeanors, and misdemeanors out of things that didn't use to be illegal at all. That means more cases and more complicated ones; even plea-bargaining gets harder as the stakes for minor offenses rise.
So far, Hennepin County has fared better by comparison than most public-defender offices in the state. But the pressure is on. Since 1989, when it became part of a statewide system, the caseload has gone up 80 percent while funding increased only 10 percent. The county board has kicked in to keep the office from what Kennedy has said would be certain collapse; but that appropriation, now standing at around $4 million for fiscal 1997, may not continue much longer.
The problem, politically speaking, is that unlike most people in similar situations, Kennedy hasn't accepted what's been dished out to him. Rather than adjusting his operations to fit tougher laws and tighter budgets, he's challenged the laws and demanded more money. And that's not even to mention his habit of lambasting the system that employs him, and the people in it, whenever he considers that "justice isn't safe in their hands." As much as a lawyer and an administrator, Kennedy has been a rabble-rouser and an advocate far beyond the confines of his position. To understand why--and how he's managed to avoid getting kicked out on his ear--you have to understand a little bit about the Kennedys of north Minneapolis.
"It's probably fair to say that I was born a rebel," Kennedy says by way of introduction. It's not what you'd expect to hear from a guy who sits there in a black suit and gold watch, hands folded in front of him, looking like a cross between an aging general and a storytelling grandfather. Bushy eyebrows and deep creases frame his eyes, giving his face an owl-like appearance. But after a while, a touch of rogue breaks through the polished appearance--especially when talk turns to authority figures. His voice turns gravelly. You get a sense that you'd rather not be on his bad side.
Descended from Irish immigrants who settled on plots in what was then Corcoran Township, Kennedy's parents lost the farm in the second wave of the Great Depression. Bill, their oldest, was eight. He doesn't remember much of the specifics, he says, except that from that point forward "there weren't very many kind words for lawyers in our household. Or bankers."
The family moved to the city, packing four kids into a series of tiny apartments. Kennedy remembers his father wearing shoes lined with cardboard, sharing a bed with his brother, days when it wasn't clear whether there would be dinner. But, he adds, "being poor was not a crime then. People helped us out. If America had had the same attitude towards the poor that it does now, we would have had an armed revolution in this country."
It wasn't as if the Kennedys took their state for granted. Both parents were active in politics, the blue-collar, Farmer-Labor variety bred among people who knew they'd been ripped off. And the grandparents told stories from the old country--not of leprechauns and fair maids, but of the Troubles, the Easter Rising, James Connolly the socialist, and Michael Collins the statesman spy.
"Justice was an everyday topic in our household," Kennedy says. "It wasn't stated quite the way lawyers or judges would state it, but it was an everyday topic. My mother, I think, was the first one who suggested to me that 'you can't tell me what fairness is, but I know when something's unfair.' I always remembered that. And she's right. You may not be able to define it, but most people share a very deep sense of what is unfair. If there were two magical words in the American language, words that get everybody's attention, it would be 'that's unfair.'
A high school track star, Kennedy got through his education at record speed. By age 27, he'd finished a stint in the army, college at the University of Minnesota, and law school at Notre Dame. He'd also plunged into politics, starting with partisan gruntwork. Nellie Stone Johnson, the grande dame of DFL politics, remembers putting him on a job distributing handbills on Girard Avenue, and eventually finding him a couple of suburbs down the road. "I forgot to tell him where to stop," she grins. Later, he worked on the campaigns of the late Hubert Humphrey, managed Walter Mondale's runs for attorney general, and served under Mondale as an assistant AG. At 37, with an additional six years of private practice under his belt, he got the public defense job.
Over the next quarter-century, Kennedy took his office from a staff of seven part-timers to more than 150, including 100 attorneys, on a budget of $12 million. During the fiscal year that ended last June, they handled almost 55,000 cases, approximately half the total for the entire state. He established innovations--like the "disposition adviser," a kind of in-house social worker--that were copied around the country. He encouraged his workers to form a union, the only such local in the state. And he led a series of cases that went all the way to the state and U.S. Supreme Courts, establishing precedents on things like the use of hypnosis in interrogations, search and seizure, wiretaps, and grandparent kidnapping.
The results came at a price. In a 1971 profile in the Star Tribune Kennedy's wife, a social worker who stayed home to raise their two kids, noted that he took work home with him constantly. The marriage eventually fell apart. He drank a lot, alcoholism being "practically an occupational disease among trial lawyers" at the time. He quit on his own, went into treatment anyway when the "Minnesota Model" was still a novelty, and remains a zealous advocate for treatment. A heart bypass helped to convince him to quit smoking. His remaining obsessions, he says, are justice, jelly donuts, and landscape photography--a solitary art that takes him on long trips in search of the perfect light. His favorite subject are mountain storms.
The most notable thing about the way people talk about Kennedy's tenure is that there are few lukewarm descriptions. Jim Krieger, who has been in the office for almost two decades, pulls out a well-worn Frederick Douglass quote to describe his boss: "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lighting; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."
"That's Bill," Krieger says. "He's thunder and lightning. He's like one of those Cecil B. de Mille movies--all those legions--all by himself. No one knows how people like that are created. When he argues a case, you can hear a pin drop in the courtroom. You don't want to interrupt this man. People don't talk like that in 1996."
"He's one of the most loyal people I've ever known," says Hennepin County District Court Judge David Duffy, who spent much of his working life in Kennedy's office. "It's a my-country-right-or-wrong, my-staff-person-right-or-wrong attitude. He might give you hell privately, tell you you screwed up, but he'd still support you. Unless what you did was unethical or illegal. And I think I'll be loyal back to him until the day I die."
The flip side is obvious for those who have found themselves opposing the chief. Former Hennepin County Chief Judge Kevin Burke, who says he's been both friend and foe of Kennedy's, describes him as "part charmer, part IRA bomb-thrower. He can be intensely passionate for the causes he believes in, and intensely difficult when you're on the other side."
"I liken him to a combat drill sergeant," says local lawyer Dick Beens, who battled Kennedy during the fight over whether the state or Hennepin County should govern his office. "His troops, if they're going to have to be in the foxhole, want to be next to Kennedy. He takes care of them. Sometimes he takes care of them irrespective of what's going to happen to the rest of the world. And if you antagonize him, it's not a civilized fight.
"I remember that at one point, he ordered all of his people to file affidavits of prejudice against Judge Burke [whom Kennedy at the time accused of sabotaging public defense]. I went up there one morning and watched several of the defenders doing it. One lady was in tears, and Judge Burke asked her if she was afraid for her job, and she silently nodded yes. I found it extremely poor judgment [on Kennedy's part]." Beens says he filed an ethics complaint against the chief, but that no action resulted.
It's not just style that has made Kennedy anathema to a lot of people. More and more over his years as chief, he's been noisy in a world where the custom was to settle things quietly. As the political climate moved away from civil rights, civil liberties, and rehabilitation, his lawyers challenged entire chunks of the criminal justice system. There were cases questioning how police could set up an operation to buy hot merchandise and then arrest the sellers, or sell small amounts of crack and nail the customers for possession.
And Kennedy's battles didn't stay confined to the legal arena. He lobbied the Legislature, pulled political strings, and made prolific use of the ethics-complaint procedure. It was in large part his influence that convinced Gov. Rudy Perpich--to whom Kennedy was both close friend and political adviser--to appoint a Supreme Court task force on racial bias in the judicial system. He testified before it himself, warning among other things that some police officers were "thumpers and racists."
"If that kind of thing was coming from one of us," says former Urban League president, cable host, and adamant Kennedy supporter Ron Edwards, "there might be concern, but there would also be amusement. They could dismiss it. But Bill is considered one of their own--well
educated, well-trained, moving in the corridors of power. He breaks that accepted unanimity. And so there is less tolerance for him."
In fact, it's close to a miracle Kennedy remains in office. The first move to replace him came in 1988, when a new guard of liberal county commissioners called him a dinosaur who fostered discontent in the county "family." The second and bigger one was in 1992, when the state Board of Public Defense reappointed him by a hair's breadth. A good part of the credit each time went to careful maneuvering by Kennedy loyalists in the legal community and politics. "The argument I kept making," says John Derus, a fellow north-sider who as chairman of the county board helped pull Kennedy through in '88, "was that he's not supposed to be friendly with us. We appoint him to be the people's lawyer. He's supposed to kick us in the shins and be a a strong spokesperson against any establishment figures who would infringe upon the rights of the poor."
But if previous battles for Kennedy's job were tough, they're nothing compared to what's shaping up this year. By virtue of his background, his experience, and his political connections, Bill McGee may be the most formidable challenger Kennedy's ever faced--and vice versa. By the time Thursday's state board meeting ends, there's practically guaranteed to be political blood on the floor.
Oddly, Kennedy and McGee have come to this point along trajectories that are practically mirror images of each other. One family was white and poor, the other black and middle class. The Kennedys moved from the country to a poor part of Minneapolis; the McGees started out in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood and moved outstate. Kennedy went to a Catholic school, McGee to a Lutheran college. And if Kennedy started as a prosecutor and landed in public defense, McGee began as a defender and became a prosecutor.
There are similarities, too. Like Kennedy's, McGee's parents were socially active. His father, Earl, was the first black teacher at Central High before joining IBM in Rochester, where he became the president of the local NAACP. His wife Anna was a pioneer working with disabled people. Like Kennedy, McGee calls his mother the strongest influence on his character.
After a couple of years at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, McGee finished his B.A. at the University of Minnesota, went on to grad school in classical studies, and then to the UM Law School. He learned a lesson in law enforcement around the same time, getting beaten by police who mistook him for a robbery suspect.
He first met Kennedy, McGee says, while working a staff attorney at Minneapolis's Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to poor people. He admired both the man and the office, and joined Kennedy's staff in 1984. Two years later he went back to the Legal Rights Center, this time as its executive director. "He had wonderful legal skills," says Doug Hall, the center's founder who recruited McGee and remains close friends with him.
"He had a sense of the mission of the center, which was a community-based project rather than just a legal office. A lot of young lawyers come out of law school, and they think they know everything, so people should take their advice. At Legal Rights, the process was exactly reverse. The lawyer didn't ever say 'I think you should plead guilty.' We were trying to find out what they really wanted to do and then using our legal skills to develop that. And McGee was one of the first to really get inside that philosophy. That's what set the center apart from everything else."
Not everyone was as impressed, though. "I have no faith in him whatsoever," says Izear Watkins, who was on the center's board during McGee's tenure. "I was one of the founders, so I knew what the idea [behind the center] was. With McGee, there were cases they wouldn't take because of the crime the person was accused of committing. I thought people are presumed not guilty until they go to court." (McGee acknowledges that, in drug cases for example, he preferred defending those accused of mere possession over those charged with dealing, "because individuals involved with the sale of drugs were hurting the community.")
Watkins and some other board members also accuse McGee of either starting or continuing sloppy bookkeeping practices to the point where the IRS was threatening sanctions. Tax records from the period, like all files older than six years, have been destroyed by the agencies keeping them. However, a 1990 memo from then-board chairman David Nasby does refer to "the question of expense, audit, control and salary advances [being] more under control than in the previous review."
In addition, minutes from a 1988 board of directors meeting say McGee told the board that "all delinquent taxes and interest have been paid, but penalties [of at least $7,300] are still owed." And a letter from the center's auditor at the time, William Brown, says he found that his audit for 1987 "reflected serious financial difficulties in paying obligations such as payroll taxes, which resulted in penalties and interest expense." He recommended bookkeeping changes "so that errors can be detected in a timely manner." He said, the center "should either increase its fund-raising efforts or reduce expenditures where possible."
"There's not much I can say about that," McGee responds. "The center has always had financial difficulties. But we never missed a paycheck while I was there. We met budget." Later, when asked about documents referring to "outstanding salaries to employees in the amount of $5,800," McGee amends that to say he and comptroller Steve Henry occasionally skipped their own paychecks. He says the IRS problems were due to the center's failure to properly escrow payroll taxes, and that payroll was subsequently contracted out.
McGee's most high-profile venture into the public arena came after the 1990 death of Tycel Nelson, a young African-American man shot in the back by a police officer in what the cop said was self-defense. When community advocates demanded a special investigation, McGee was appointed to lead it. The results of the investigation remain secret; they were presented to a grand jury, which did not return an indictment. The officer, Dan May, is still on the force.
"It was a no-win situation," McGee says about the case now. "I don't like to talk about it much. I knew that I would be criticized no matter how it went. But I did seem to be a person who was acceptable both to the community and to the other parts of the system. It was not my job to agree or disagree with the conclusions of the grand jury."
During that investigation, McGee functioned as a special assistant to the Hennepin County Attorney's office. He became a staff attorney there the following year. "There were a couple of incidents in my life at that time that changed me," he says. "One was when I ran into an old client and he said 'Mr. McGee, I'm not in trouble, I just want to let you know that I'm okay now, and I tell all my friends that if they want to get off, they should get Bill McGee at the Legal Rights Center.'
"I began to think about the kinds of messages that we send our young people, particularly in plea bargaining, when we minimize the consequence or minimize the behavior. I got five charges, I want to plead two and get three dismissed and get minimal consequences. What does that do to foster accountability in our young people? We draw a line, and when they cross it we move the line.
"And so I thought, maybe there's a way that I can have more of an impact from the other side. I believe in the right kinds of situations a prosecutor can do as much good as 10 defense attorneys. And I chose to work in the juvenile area, because I think that's where I could make the most difference."
Listening to McGee talk like that, you might wonder why he would want to go back to public defense. But, he says, his idea is that prosecutors and defenders "have more in common than we think. I'm not saying that the system should be tough on people. I think we should hold them accountable and say, we're going to put together a program that works for you. I think people need to come to the table. Cooperation does not mean co-optation."
McGee isn't the only one who thinks it's time for the public defender's office to, as some put it, join the '90s. Judges, prosecutors, and cops all have complained that Kennedy's feisty attorneys are more than the system can handle at a time of growing caseloads and clogged calendars. "Every time a public defender, a county attorney, and a judge get together, the public pays all three of our salaries," notes Burke. "Something meaningful has to happen in those appearances, or it's been a waste of time and money."
But Kennedy remains suspicious of corporate-style reengineering in a system where the line between efficiency and railroading is thin. "This idea that I should be part of a team and go along to get along is nonsense," he says. "Our job is to make the government prove its case." Which goes a long way toward explaining why he may not be chief much longer.
Take the story of the state takeover, which Kennedy fought from the start. What the Legislature had in mind, he thundered in meeting after meeting, would ruin public defense in Hennepin County. The union might be busted as employees became state workers. Staff might be cut. Resources for things like expert witnesses and law books would dwindle. The office would be at the mercy of lawmakers who might or might not have the best interests of big-city criminal defendants at heart.
Some of his concerns have since proven justified. Even with Hennepin County subsidizing it, Kennedy's office--or, for that matter, any other in the state--is nowhere near where it should be by the state's own standards. According to the board of public defense's figures, no public defender should handle more than 175 felony cases (not counting homicides); 450 misdemeanor cases; and so on. But to achieve those kinds of caseloads, says state board administrator Dick Scherman, the Legislature would have to appropriate an additional $27 million each year, 80 percent more than what it now spends.
And that, says Scherman, is not something the board is even going to ask for. "Politically I would never recommend that at this point in time. That would be political suicide. The state does not have that kind of money." The board is planning a major funding increase for Hennepin County next year, Scherman says, but that still depends on the Legislature.
That kind of realpolitik reasoning, however, hasn't appeased Kennedy. In April 1992, he filed a lawsuit against the state board, Gov. Arne Carlson, various state officials, and the Hennepin County Board. He alleged that the state "by negligence, misfeasance or nonfeasance, did not obtain or attempt to obtain sufficient funding" for his office; that as a result, the poor were being denied adequate representation; and that this violated both the state and the U.S. Constitutions.
It amounted to not only biting the hand that fed him, but gnawing down hard and drawing blood. Four years after the suit was first filed, Judge John Lindstrom of Willmar ruled in Kennedy's favor. Minnesota's system of public defense, he wrote, was in fact "not compatible with constitutional principles of equal justice." He threw in a compliment to Kennedy's staff, saying they had "performed admirably despite limited resources."
It was a fleeting victory. This February, the state Supreme Court overturned Lindstrom's ruling. Kennedy supporters called it a political decision, instigated perhaps by Chief Justice A.M. (Sandy) Keith, who wrote the decision. Keith once worked with Kennedy in the DFL trenches, but had since become an adversary. Critics said it was high time Kennedy got knocked down to size; now perhaps, he'd exhibit a little more cooperative attitude. So far, Kennedy has failed to oblige.
One effect the suit did have, though, was to cement the feeling, among a lot of members of the state board, that Kennedy had to go. In the end he stayed, but the fight it took did a lot to set the stage for this year's drama.
The Board of Public Defense has seven members, four appointed by the governor and three by the state Supreme Court. Two more are added when it's time to select a chief district defender. In the fall of '92, the inside word was was that at least five of those nine votes were dead-set against Kennedy. A scramble for his job set in. Ten candidates applied, including a series of prominent Minneapolis and St. Paul attorneys. One of them was Peter Cahill, a private defense lawyer who spent four years in the Kennedy's office during the 1980s.
Cahill says he ran because he'd heard Kennedy wouldn't be reappointed, and he felt the county office should cooperate better with the state. But, he adds, he might not have had he known how fast things would get ugly. "It wasn't Bill so much," he says. "He seemed to understand what was going on, but a lot of people in his office didn't. They took it personally.
"I was called just about every name in the book by people who I used to work with. Liar, traitor, backstabber. A memo came out that called me a cowardly macho idiot because of an incident where I got into an argument with a prosecutor and she accused me of throwing a file at her."
It ended up coming down to a choice between Cahill and Kennedy, and Cahill was assured he had the votes. Then something happened--Cahill says he still doesn't know what--and Kennedy was in by a hair's breadth.
There are many versions of how the political arithmetic changed that day. Kennedy's story is that he simply convinced wavering board members of his merits. Bill McGee's is a little more complicated.
Though he was a prosecutor by the time the vote came around, McGee had been a member of the board until a few months earlier; in fact, he says, "there was some interest in me running [for Kennedy's job], but I declined out of deference to him." Then Kennedy asked for his support, McGee says, and got it. "But it was not without dealing with some issues that needed to be addressed. There was a meeting to discuss what it would take to keep Bill in the job. And Bill made some promises.
"Number one, that it was going to be his last term. Number two, to increase the diversity in the office and the diversity at the senior attorney level." (The number of minority attorneys in Kennedy's office has long been a matter of contention. Kennedy says his office has more--15 percent--than any other district in the state. His critics say he needs to do better. Of the supervising attorneys, all but one are white.) "And number three, to work in a more cooperative spirit with the [state] board and the other district chiefs. Those were just some of the things he said he would do. I used what little influence I had with board members, because I believed that Bill was a man of his word. That was my experience until then. It is different now."
About a year after Kennedy's reappointment, McGee says he met with his old boss for lunch. "I said look, Bill, the things you said you would do you're not doing. Bill developed amnesia. I didn't like that. I'm no fool, and I would much rather have someone say to me 'I changed my mind' than 'I don't remember that.'"
McGee says the two didn't talk much after that, except for a chance encounter about a year ago. "He said to me, 'Bill, I'm going to need your help again.' And I said, 'Bill, that's something we're going to have to sit down and talk about.'" The next time he heard from Kennedy, McGee says, was this spring, when the chief offered him a position as a senior attorney. He declined. "I thought," he says pointedly, "that it was done for the wrong reasons."
"That's bullshit," Kennedy counters. "I did offer him a job, but he turned me down. I now know why he turned me down--he's been working on this [application for the chief's job] for a while."
As for the alleged 1992 deal, Kennedy says McGee's story is "absurd. It's ludicrous--why would I [trade promises for a job] and also sue the state and the county? He's been warned about saying this, because it's a lie, and I will take anyone to court who continues saying it. You want to talk about Bill Kennedy, you tell the truth. I have a real thing about that."
Of course, it wouldn't be altogether out of character for Kennedy to play a smooth behind-the-scenes maneuver. There are plenty of people who can testify to having antagonized him and never knowing what hit them. As controversial as he's been, notes Edwards, "he also has friends in powerful places. Folk who know where the skeletons are. You get caught in the middle between these titans--watch out." That's what McGee's finding out now, in the most bizarre twist to the tale yet.
In 1990, a woman named Loretta Scott filed a paternity action in Hennepin County District Court. She had given birth in 1988 to a boy she named Jeremy. The father, she alleged and the court confirmed, was McGee. Scott, who was then 25, had a criminal record--things like stabbing a man in a parking lot and trying to cash a stolen check--and she'd been represented by a Hennepin County public defender. That attorney was also McGee.
Sex with clients has only recently been forbidden in the standards issued by the state Lawyers' Board of Professional Responsibility. The matter was pretty controversial at the time; even now, the code only prohibits "sexual relations" (painstakingly defined as "intentional touching of the intimate parts of a person or causing the person to touch the intimate parts of the lawyer") with current clients. McGee says his and Scott's relationship didn't begin until after she'd stopped being an "active client" of his. Court documents list him as her attorney of record up to April 1987; Jeremy was born in early February 1988.
Whatever their previous relationship, it's clear that by the time the court ordered McGee to pay child support, the couple had very little to say to each other. McGee says Scott filed a complaint against him with the lawyers' board. Board records aren't public except for the rare cases in which a public discipline is issued. He also says she made "harassing phone calls" to him both at the Legal Rights Center and the county attorney's office.
This October, Scott--now under her married name of Elgren--filed a petition for a domestic-abuse restraining order against McGee. She alleged that during the paternity hearing, McGee had "declined any rights to visitation with Jeremy and stated that he wanted nothing to do with him," but that since then, he had repeatedly warned Jeremy that "he could pick him up at school whenever he wanted to, and that he would never see his mother again." (McGee has joint legal custody of the boy.)
This usually happened, Elgren said, "whenever people start questioning Loretta about [McGee]. William also threatens Loretta by telling her that if she talks to anyone about him, he'll make false allegations about her to child protection. Jeremy is afraid to go to school because he is terrified that his father will pick him up... [McGee] contacts Loretta or Jeremy only when he is in trouble and is concerned that Loretta will say something that could hurt him somehow."
The most recent threats, Elgren alleged, came after McGee learned that the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was looking into allegations regarding their relationship. The BCA, she said, had been tipped off by a "confidential internal investigation" the Hennepin County public defender's office started in early October. (Sources at the office say they were contacted by Elgren, interviewed her, and then turned the matter over to the state. Neither they nor anyone else involved with the matter will say publicly what the investigation dealt with, except to say that it goes beyond the claim of harassment and into what McGee confirms are criminal allegations. They are, he adds, "totally false.")
According to court documents, Elgren filed the complaint acting as her own attorney. She also signed an affidavit asking for court fees to be waived because she made only $710 a month in child support and part-time work. Ramsey County District Court Judge Michael Monahan dismissed the complaint November 4 because of a legal technicality; Elgren refiled it the same day as a harassment case. This time, she had a lawyer. It was Peter Cahill.
Cahill, who in his solo law practice does occasional contract work for Kennedy's office, says he didn't get involved in the case for political reasons. "I don't care who becomes public defender," he says. "I just want this taken care of. There was a relationship between Loretta and Bill McGee, and now there's an eight-year-old child. I don't want to see Jeremy become the victim of a bunch of political nonsense. They're just going to have to work out this problem." Elgren likewise says that "as far as I'm concerned, [McGee] could be flipping burgers, and I'd still be doing this. I just want him to leave me alone, and if he wants visitation to go to counseling."
Whatever Cahill and Elgren's reasons, the case clearly has major political overtones. McGee, who denies most everything in the complaint "except that I'm Jeremy's father," says he's convinced the objective is "to have this come out in the media." On November 14, Doug Hall, acting as McGee's attorney, filed a response to Elgren's complaint in court, something not required in a harassment case. "We did it," Hall says, "to put it on the record, and also to get some publicity."
In the response, McGee called Elgren's allegations "totally false and complete fabrication." Rather than refusing to see his son, he said, he "repeatedly tried to arrange visitation through Loretta, but was denied reasonable visitation." He acknowledged that the BCA had contacted him in late October and said he'd "made a full and complete statement" to the investigators. He also alleged that Elgren "manipulated and abused Jeremy and forces him to repeat false accusations."
Speaking during breaks at a court hearing regarding the harassment complaint Monday, McGee was combative. "What's happened to me is Machiavellian and Hoover-like," he said. "My life has been hell since September 27," when he applied for the chief's job. He noted the alleged timing of the "confidential investigation" in the public defender's office: "You have to wonder about that. Why would they start such an investigation days or weeks after I filed my application? I can't say it's Kennedy personally, but someone in that office is doing this."
Doug Hall, for his part, says it's clear that his friend McGee "has pretty poor judgment sometimes. He gets himself involved in sticky situations. But he's got some very strongly defined goals, and I think he's keeping his eye on those goals and he's not going to let what Kennedy is trying to do to him divert him from those goals. I have always been an admirer of the things [Kennedy]'s done, and I'm just aghast at what could be driving him to carry on this stuff now." Kennedy denies that he or his office instigated the allegations. Elgren's harassment complaint is scheduled for another hearing Tuesday.
How it will all shake out is hard to tell. Some of Kennedy's erstwhile enemies seem to have mellowed: "I don't think there's a need for a change in the public defender's office right now," says Burke. The County Board has voted unanimously to support the chief's reappointment. Yet there's talk that a majority of state board members are inclined to vote against him. Members contacted for this story kept mum about their leanings.
But while McGee is a strong candidate, Elgren's charges make it unclear whether his application will remain viable. There is a third finalist, Martin Berg, who served as the Roseau County attorney from '82 to '95. The state board's Dick Scherman says Berg now practices law in St. Paul, but the phone book doesn't list his office, and his chances of getting the job are slim, according to most observers.
Some, including Edwards, speculate that McGee may be used as a "sacrificial lamb"--that he'll be appointed only to be removed later, thus making room for a candidate who will "toe the line." Another scenario is that the board will decline to make a decision Thursday, and instead reopen the application process. That probably would begin a free-for-all among candidates who have thus far waited in the wings. And there's always the possibility that Kennedy will be grudgingly reappointed, perhaps with the hope that this will be his last term.
The chief, meanwhile, is not hiding his pleasure very well as he heads into the fray. "I know it's tough out there for lawyers," he says, "but I think I could make a living. I'll take whatever comes. What I can tell you is that whether I'm appointed or not, there will be consequences. There will"--that grave, slow cadence again--"be consequences."
"I'd be lying if I said I don't enjoy a good fight when I'm right. And I don't care who's on the other side. They're still outnumbered."
News Intern Kathryn Herzog contributed to this story.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- Steven Timm charged with animal cruelty for harassing, drowning deer
- Cataclysmic boredom propels Stewart Mills into 2016 congressional race
- Man goes to meet prostitute with a trunk full of plastic and a giant empty suitcase