Pomposity reigns at Zimmermann indictment press conference

As former Minneapolis City Councilman Dean Zimmermann was busy installing a new basement ceiling in the home of current Hennepin County Commissioner and ex-mayoral candidate Peter McLaughlin Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger was bringing forth a four-count indictment against Zimmermann for allegedly accepting bribes while a member of the council's zoning commission.

It was a rich contrast. The 63-year old Zimmermann--who ranks among the more impoverished and least pompous public servants in the long history of Minneapolis city government--was banging in nails to try and make ends meet in partnership with his wife, Jenny Heiser, who now cleans houses for a living. ("We're nonpartisan workers," says Heiser, referring to her Green Party husband doing work for DFL-er McLaughlin.) Meanwhile, Heffelfinger, a little bantam rooster dandy of a man, tugged at his cuffs and announced to a mostly well-heeled squadron of assembled media that Zimmermann could be sentenced to up to 40 years in jail for enriching himself at the public's expense.

No one disputes, by the way, that Zimmermann voted against the statute that the developer allegedly paid him thousands of dollars to support. Or that the retaining wall Zimmermann allegedly asked a nonprofit group to construct for him, in exchange for his signature on a city document, was never built.

But that didn't stop Heffelfinger and the media from putting on a self-aggrandizing show as staunch sentries of the public interest. Asked if he felt there was "a culture of corruption" on the Minneapolis City Council, where three members have now been indicted over the past four-and-a-half years, Heffelfinger replied to the media that he would "leave that up to your eloquence" to determine, but that he took the whole thing "very personally."

Are there other investigations going on regarding Minneapolis City Council members? Heffelfinger was asked. "I'm not going to tell you," he scolded, and everybody had a big laugh, the bulldog attorney holding off the tenacious media in their quest to unearth more unholy corruption on the city council. Still grinning, Heffelfinger continued, "Obviously I am disappointed that it happened three times on my watch."

Only the most naive observer in the room would believe this. The position of U.S. Attorney is a political appointment. Heffelfinger has been the person of choice when Republicans have been in the White House (tapped for the job by both Bush the father and Bush the son) and out of office when a Democrat is President. Watching over the indictment of a pair of DFL-ers and a Green from the lefty-friendly city council--where even the Republicans stay in the closet as Independents--is hardly disappointing for Heffelfinger, whose party needs all the help it can get counterbalancing the Jack Abramoff scandal in Washington. In any case, the broad smile on his face belied the crocodile tears in his words.

But at least Heffelfinger is officially a hack, a relatively exalted position in this room full of Buzz Lightyears. (Present company excepted, of course. I have a very small ego and never grandstand with my prose or political leanings.) Against stiff competition, my favorite of the questions posed to Heffelfinger came from Brad Woodard of KARE-11, who hit the redline on the pomposity meter the moment he referred to the U.S. Attorney by his first name, and resolutely remained there until he concluded his howler of a follow-up.

"Tom, given today's climate and given your role as a public servant, as U.S. Attorney, what disturbs you most about this type of corruption?" Woodard asked. Unfortunately, Heff offered pablum in response, compelling Woodard to be more explicit in what he was really after. "Can you put in perspective, within the context of a post-9/11 world, the importance of rooting out this type of corruption?"

For some reason, Heffelfinger demurred on this marvelous opportunity to conflate Dean Zimmermann and Osama bin Laden. To complete the scene, about 15 yards away from where Woodard was sitting, a color portrait of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, probably best known now for legally justifying America's use of torture, smiled beneficently over the proceedings.

On the crowded elevator after the press conference, Channel 5's Tom Hauser surveyed the plethora of talking heads and proclaimed, "if this gets stuck between floors, the news won't go on tonight." This fine reminder of our self-importance was met with more than a few appreciative chuckles, and people were feeling pretty good about themselves as we hit the ground floor, Hauser perhaps foremost among them for his bon mot. But just before he hit the lobby, the smirk vanished and he was quickly chatting up the security guard. He'd forgotten his cell phone and needed to retrieve it. Fortunately the elevators remained reliable, and Channel 5's news went off without a hitch.