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Those 33 terrorist groups in Ramsey County? It was "a very big lie"
Just weeks into the new Ramsey County Sheriff administration, we finally know why former sheriff Bob Fletcher ignored Minnesota Data Practices requests for the 78 Terrorism Information Briefs he boasted about preparing and disseminating since 2005.
"They never existed," Randy Gustafson, the new public information officer for Sheriff Matt Bostrom, said in a telephone interview on January 19. "It is a very big lie."
But that's not the only thing Fletcher falsified in this 2009 budget report to the Ramsey County Board, according to Gustafson.
The story is the product of months of work by TC Daily Planet reporter Karen Hollish, made possible by contributions from 57 people through Spot.Us.
Follow the early progress of the story here:
While Gustafson was looking for answers to the Daily Planet's October 20 Data Practices Act request, he discovered that some of Fletcher's most shocking figures, such as his claims that Ramsey County citizens were threatened by 22 domestic and 11 international terrorist groups in 2009, had been made up, too.
"I think that they came from an active imagination," Gustafson said.
"I think the number," he added, "just kind of sounded like a good number."
Gustafson, whose official response to the Daily Planet's request can be read here, said he had to prod some of his new colleagues to get this information. He speculated that Fletcher, as well as Fletcher's employees who supposedly did this anti-terrorism work, had a self-serving reason to stretch the truth.
"What they told the county board was a little bit exaggerated," Gustafson said, "but if they hadn't worded it that way it wouldn't have justified the thousands of dollars of salaries they were getting."
Bob's "secret little army"
Sources within the department said Fletcher's anti-terrorism unit was shrouded in secrecy.
One of the few descriptions of it can be found on this contentious 2005 e-democracy thread, in which Gary Olding, who identified himself as the leader of the department's Weapons of Mass Destruction - Prevention, Research, and Preparedness Unit, stepped in to describe his work.
"We conduct investigations, surveillance, and develop informants to preempt and solve crimes involving weapons of mass destruction and terrorism before they occur," Olding wrote.
But if one of the unit's crowning achievements was supposedly the creation and distribution of dozens of Terrorism Information Briefs -- which never existed -- just how did Olding and his team members spend their time?
Olding, who left his post a week after Fletcher was gone, didn't respond to the Daily Planet's requests for an interview. His 2009 salary, according to this searchable database on the Pioneer Press website, was $92,380.52.
Just how that public money was spent, and exactly how many people worked underneath Olding, remains unknown.
One deputy who's been with the department for more than ten years described Olding's WMD unit as "Bob's secret little army." At least a half-dozen deputies worked in it, said the deputy, who asked that his name not be printed for fear of retaliation. (City Pages' Matt Snyders documented some of that retaliation in a 2009 article.)
Fletcher and the RNC
"Bob's secret little army" did get around in the run-up to the 2008 Republican National Convention. His office spent hundreds of thousands of dollars chasing anarchists in the year before the convention, culminating in a middle-of-the-night raid on the headquarters of the RNC Welcoming Committee before the convention, and raids on private homes, in collaboration with the FBI.
Fletcher's investigation started after he viewed a satirical video by the RNC Welcoming Committee, according to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting published in MinnPost:
"Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and his team would cite the video among other things in later warrant affidavits as a basis for his probe into the Welcoming Committee when police stormed the group's headquarters just before the convention began as thousands of reporters and more Republican delegates converged on St. Paul.
Fletcher's anti-terrorism crusade led him to clash repeatedly with St. Paul police over RNC security, according to MPR reports.
"They existed because they carried out Bob's little secret war," he said, "and his secret war was to create a story, get him in the paper and get him reelected."
An example of the "secret war," he said, was the department's infiltration into activist groups that planned to protest the 2008 RNC convention.
The day-to-day work of the unit's members may have been more mundane, according to what Gustafson has already learned in his short time on the job. Much of the unit's "research" into groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Animal Liberation Front happened through virtual channels, he said.
"They sat around watching CNN and they went to the websites of these different groups," Gustafson reported. "That was how they spent their days."
More to come
The Daily Planet wasn't the only media outlet whose Data Practices Act requests, calls and emails were completely ignored during Fletcher's 16-year tenure.
Within days of his arrival, Gustafson received no fewer than five Data Practices Act requests from reporters whose earlier attempts had likely ended up in Fletcher's garbage can.
The previous administration didn't exactly make it easy for Gustafson to transition into his work with the public. When he got to his new office, there were no files, papers or outstanding records requests left for him to learn from.
"Inside of the office there were zero pieces of paper," he said.
As the days go on, the suspicious history they're unearthing is a bit of shock, Gustafson said.
"It's just amazing," he said. "We're right now in this discovery phase, and this first quarter is trying to find things out like this."
With a more responsive administration in place, the coming months are sure to bring to light more information about how Fletcher ran his department and how taxpayer money was spent.
It's not just media outlets who are interested in learning the truth: "The questions you raise in terms of the scope, personnel and costs of these past investigations are questions that the new Sheriff is also interested in learning answers to," Gustafson said in his official response. "Upon the conclusion of an internal investigation process now underway we will be able provide pertinent information to you."
Former Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who was on leave from the St. Paul Police Department during his 16 years as sheriff, returned to the St. Paul Police Department as a night watch commander.
©2011 Karen Hollish