Public Defender Battle Gets Hotter Yet.
Loretta Elgren stole the show at the state Board of Public Defense meeting November 21. Wearing a fire-truck red dress with matching hat that looked like something out of a Seurat painting, she marched to the front of a room packed with men in dark suits. "I'm here to put an end to the rumor that Bill Kennedy got me to say anything bad about Bill McGee," she announced.
She was talking about the Hennepin County chief public defender and the main contestant for his job. ("Bill Kennedy's Last Stand?" CP 11/20) One of the two was supposed to have been appointed by the board that afternoon for a four-year term. But it wouldn't happen: For weeks the legal community had been abuzz with rumors about the two candidates, and on Wednesday both metro dailies had reported McGee's claims of a smear campaign launched against him by Kennedy or his staff.
At the center of the stories was Elgren, a former client of McGee's who'd had his child, filed a harassment suit against him, and accused him of a variety of crimes. The Star Tribune said Elgren had told the paper that "an investigator in the defender's office recently sought her out in an effort to gather incriminating information about McGee's behavior and past lifestyle."
Now Elgren was declaring that she'd never said anything of the sort. What had happened, she said, was that some time back she had gotten a call from someone in the county attorney's office. The person informed her that McGee was telling people he had two children, "one by his former wife and one by a prostitute." She'd called McGee to complain. His response, she claimed, had been to tell her she should keep her mouth shut. Furious, she had then contacted the public defender's office to spill the beans on her former lover. "And Paul McEnroe [the author of the Star Tribune article] or anyone else who said that [Kennedy] got me to say this is lying." (Of course the Star Tribune never did say Kennedy directly contacted Elgren.)
"Miss," the chairman of the hearing interrupted, "we're here to take testimony for one side or another. If you're not going to..." She tried again, pulling out a picture of her son, and was interrupted again. "Well, I'm here to speak for Bill Kennedy," she concluded. "I don't know Bill Kennedy, I've never spoken to him, but I've heard that he's done good things." And with that, she was out of the room. Several members later expressed disgust at her testimony and the applause that followed it.
Considering that she'd just called the core of the Star Tribune's story a flat-out lie, you might have thought the episode would have made the paper. It didn't. McEnroe says that's because he was sure of his notes regarding her original statement, and that "it's not something I would get wrong."
Under different circumstances, this might not even bear mentioning: Newspapers are selective by nature, and sources often complain about being misquoted. But in this case, the Star Tribune--and, to a lesser extent, the Pioneer Press--was the story: Their decision to cover the controversy as one over mudslinging had set off the whole brouhaha. And part of what's so striking about the Star Tribune's and the board members' treatment of Elgren is that while everyone seemed anxious to discuss her statements when they seemed to impugn Kennedy, both her claim to being misquoted and the substance of her allegations were essentially shrugged off. (Sources claim the public defender beat became such a subject of controversy at the Star Tribune that one reporter went to the extraordinary lengths of formally withdrawing from the story, allegedly because he believed it would be unfairly slanted.)
Until the day after the board meeting, the paper never mentioned the one credible charge Elgren makes: that McGee became sexually involved with her while he was her attorney. (McGee is vague on this point, noting only that the attorney/client relationship was not "active" when they became involved; Elgren maintains that it was.) Instead, it focused on even more inflammatory allegations--that McGee killed his brother-in-law before her eyes, and that he had sex with her while she was in the Ramsey County workhouse.
Regarding the first charge, McEnroe quoted "a law enforcement official familiar with the case" as saying that an as-yet-unpublished investigation by St. Louis County prosecutor John DeSanto had found no new evidence suggesting foul play. As for the second, it reported only McGee's denial. (Workhouse records indicate that Elgren served 60 days between February 19 and April 20, 1987. Bob Nelson, director of the Volunteers of America which runs the facility, confirms that "at some point" in the last 12 years, "we discovered a lawyer and a client embracing," but says he cannot remember who it was. He denies that, as Elgren has claimed, the workhouse instituted restrictions on attorney visits after the incident.)
It's not hard to see how reporters and officials could have been tempted to dismiss what Elgren says. She is a black woman with an extensive rap sheet, making outrageous claims against a former lover who happens to be a successful attorney. The Pioneer Press perhaps best summarized the prevailing mind-set when it quoted McGee as saying that "she told me a long time ago that if she couldn't have me, she would do everything she could to destroy me." It did not mention that Elgren makes the same charge about McGee.
"You are thinking [Elgren's appearance] is offensive because it does not meet your standards," Carol Batsell, the senior African-American attorney in Kennedy's office, told the board Thursday. "She does not have to meet your standards. And you can't imagine the courage it took for her to come here and say what she said. I was among those who applauded, and I would applaud again."
Before Thursday's meeting, the dailies reported, the board was planning to have the allegations investigated by state public defender John Stuart. Several witnesses at the hearing warned against that, saying Stuart could not seen as objective since he'd already been quoted as saying he was "concerned about how public defense resources are being used." Instead, the board voted to hire an outside investigator to the tune of up to $7,500, and to ask for a report within 30 days.
So what really happened? With officials keeping mum and charges and countercharges continuing to fly in the press, the whole story probably won't be known for a while. Here, from a variety of sources including court papers and previously unreported documents obtained by City Pages, are a few of the things that seem evident so far.
While working at the public defender's office in the mid-1980s, McGee was assigned a client named Loretta Scott. Later, having moved on to the Legal Rights Center, he became sexually involved with her. Court documents list McGee as Scott's attorney up to April 1987, and he appeared with her in Ramsey County District Court in February of that year.
In February 1988, Scott had a child she said was McGee's. He didn't acknowledge it. In December 1990 she and the Hennepin County Attorney's office (where McGee would go to work a little less than two years later) took him to court. A blood test confirmed that he was the father. He was awarded joint legal custody and ordered to pay child support.
At some point this past October, Scott, now going by her married name of Elgren, got a call from Russ Krueger, a top investigator on Kennedy's staff. In a tape of the conversation obtained by City Pages, Krueger begins by saying "I hear you've been getting a lot of calls." "Yes," Elgren says. "Billy."
Krueger adds that "another reporter from another newspaper called again this morning. We didn't know nothing so because they're all asking a whole bunch of questions, and that's what I wanted to talk to you... I told your mom here, she is sitting here in the office, I was concerned about you...."
"You know, Russ," Elgren answers, "like I told Bill, I'm going to say what I got to say." Krueger goes on to ask Elgren about the details of her charges against McGee. Later, he again refers to reporters "digging and digging and digging. And, you know, how can I get a hold of Loretta? And I said 'Loretta who,' I don't know who the hell you're talking about.... But I'm concerned about you and the hell with those reporters. I was telling your mom up here I'm concerned about her because this guy's crazy."
On another tape, Elgren again tells Krueger about McGee's past and their relationship. At the beginning of the conversation, Krueger tells another investigator, Wayne Brademan, that he's talked to Elgren about "competition between Bill McGee and Bill Kennedy [and that] the newspapers have gotten a hold of it."
Two things seem clear from the tapes: First, that Krueger was in fact poking around McGee's past, for reasons that may have included fears by Elgren and her family. And second, that unless Krueger was deceiving Elgren, reporters were looking into the story, but he was not their source.
That leaves the question of who initiated the contact, and for what purpose. McGee's answer is that it must have been Kennedy's staff, at the boss's direction or without, who went after Elgren in an effort to embarrass him out of the race. Kennedy's version, thus far unreported because he's refused to discuss the matter on the record with the press, is laid out in a confidential report he delivered to the Board of Public Defense Monday.
In the report, Kennedy says that at some point (he doesn't say when) his chief investigator Russ Krueger "received information that Mr. McGee may have initiated a sexual relationship with Loretta Scott when Mr. McGee was an Assistant Public Defender... [and that] Ms. Scott may have been a juvenile at the time." (Rumors to that effect, though not accurate, have been floating around the local legal community for some time.) "Mr. Krueger sought to verify this information. He was aware that one of my staff members was in occasional contact with Ms. Scott, and he asked this staff member about Ms. Scott. Ms. Scott then came to us on October 7, 1996." (McGee had filed his application for Kennedy's job September 27). During the conversation, Kennedy says, Scott accused McGee of a variety of crimes.
He didn't learn of the interview, Kennedy says, until October 9, when the investigators took the matter to him and "my initial response... was to become physically ill.... I determined that the police should be immediately notified." Kennedy says Minneapolis Police Sgt. Al Berryman was contacted "because I trust him." Berryman--who is also, like Kennedy, a north-sider and a powerful political figure in his role as head of the cops' union--confirms this account, and adds that the matter was turned over to the homicide unit.
Having sought counsel from his lawyer, a private attorney at the downtown firm Faegre and Benson, and from his brother Fr. Michael Kennedy, the chief says he eventually also decided to file an ethics complaint with the state Board of Professional Responsibility, asking it to investigate whether McGee was fit to be a lawyer. He says he "realized that I would be subject to criticism and false accusations for bringing these allegations forward at this time." His complaint was filed on November 19, two days before the board of public defense's scheduled meeting. (McGee says he might file a complaint of his own sometime soon, but not until after he knows for sure "what the roles of various individuals were in this smear campaign against me.")
There is, it seems clear from the evidence so far, no saint in this story. McGee at the very least made some dubious decisions in the past. Elgren carries a grudge, as does McGee. Kennedy may or may not have been trying to engineer McGee's demise, but he certainly wouldn't have felt sorry to see his opponent fall.
Interestingly, so far the matter has been discussed almost exclusively in terms of suggesting that any investigation of Elgren and her charges by the public defender's office would constitute improper use of public resources, and that heads--presumably, considering his reputation for loyalty, including Kennedy's--would have to roll. However, when asked whether investigating Elgren's charges and turning them over to authorities would be a violation, state board of Public Defense administrator Richard Scherman says "a reasonable person would probably say no. If they went to a reporter before it got to police, that would be a different story." (The latter is a tricky question, since answering it would require getting reporters to give up their confidential sources.)
Even without looking into what the press knew and when, sorting out the morass of allegations now piled up around Kennedy and McGee promises to be a tall order.
The board has not yet hired an investigator, nor has there been much detail on how the probe should be conducted. Two of the main protagonists have already weighed in with specific demands, and more may pile on soon. Kennedy, for one, demands in his report that the investigator be "truly independent," and that she or he take statements "from all parties, under oath, under penalty of perjury." Meanwhile Loretta Elgren's lawyer, Peter Cahill, has sent the board a letter complaining about its "rude" treatment of his client and saying Elgren won't speak to their investigator. Instead, he says, she will only testify at "public, recorded hearing"--something the board so far has given no indication of planning.
Editor Steve Perry contributed to this story.
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