In a post to the Minneapolis Issues List, local developer and right-wing pundit Jim Graham explained why he and his conservative friends had a party to celebrate Dean Zimmermann’s conviction for bribery:
“I, and other neighborhood people, had requested County and Federal investigation into this situation for three years. The FBI did not just suddenly go after Dean. They were pleaded with for years to stop the obvious influence pedaling.” [sic] Michael Tabman, head of the Minneapolis FBI office, seemed to acknowledge Graham’s help in a statement after the verdict: “Many of our investigations start with a tip from someone.”
Graham continued, “The reason Barb Lickness and her friends had a party to celebrate his conviction was Zimmermann had crapped all over their neighborhood for four years to support the Sabri organization. It was not even secretive. I am amazed that ANYONE [emphasis in the original] could be so naïve as to not get it. I am just as amazed that our own County and State officials did not go after Dean and the Sabris for what was obviously and [sic] area of more than ‘deep concern.’
“Dean KNEW what he was doing when he ran that interference and assisted in the exploitation of those Somali shop keepers, and the attempted takeover of neighborhoods, by the Sabri organization. We all told him so. So people, including Barb, had a right to celebrate his finally being brought to justice.”
So, Jim Graham had been going to the FBI and the county attorney for at least three years complaining that Zimmermann was being influenced by “the Sabri organization.”
What was the basis of Graham’s complaint against the Sabris? What were the Sabris trying to do?
The crisis developed when Assam Sabri tried to build a market for Somali merchants at 24th and Elliot similar to his brother Basim’s successful market on Lake Street and Fifth Avenue South. Graham told Zimmermann, “People around the neighborhood don’t like the market.” Dean was puzzled by the remark. Where were Somalis supposed to shop? Weren’t they entitled to their own shops? Weren’t they a part of the neighborhood? Besides, construction for the project had begun before he took office. Dean dismissed the remark as racist.
The crisis came to a head when the Ventura Village Neighborhood Association was scheduled to vote to approve a parking lot for the market. Graham had always controlled the neighborhood association, so he was confident he could kill the proposal for a parking lot and thereby kill the project. Graham didn’t count on the Somalis showing up at the meeting and voting in their own interest. They showed up and voted for the parking lot, and Dean recommended approval to the City Council.
Graham never fully recovered from this blow to his invincibility. He had the rules changed for the association so that in order to vote you had to be a member, and in order to be a member you had to have a driver’s license with a current address, and you had to attend one prior meeting before you could vote on anything. The requirement of a driver’s license or photo ID has generally been declared an unconstitutional restriction of voting rights when Republican legislatures have passed laws requiring them for local elections, but Graham probably doesn’t worry much about a constitutional challenge to his authority in Ventura Village.
What does Jim Graham do? He is the planning and development director at Many Rivers and the American Indian Housing and Community Development Corporation. His job is to go down to City Hall and get City Council approval and funding for construction projects. Dean approved seven housing lots for Indian housing for Graham’s corporation. Dean also authored a change in the zoning that would allow carriage houses to become dwelling units in the Phillips neighborhood at the personal request of Jim Graham. City Hall was convenient for Graham because after lobbying Zimmermann he could go across the street one way and talk to the FBI or go across the street the other way and talk to the county attorney.
Graham’s competence as a planning and development director has been seriously challenged lately because of tragic and preventable accidents that occurred in his showcase development project Many Rivers East. Just weeks ago, Kenneth Lee-Winans White III (Minogeshig) died of head injuries suffered from a 20-foot fall from a window in the building. This death was as tragic as it was preventable. There had been a similar accident at Many Rivers just two months previous. Laela Shaugobay survived her fall from the same height, but why didn’t her accident alert someone about the potential for disaster? Why did they leave pop-out screens in place on the second and third floors? Was it carelessness, bad planning or indifference that condemned Minogeshig to an early death?
Graham also has had aspirations to be elected to the City Council. In the last election he publicly boasted he was a far better candidate than either Zimmermann or Lilligren and would have defeated them both if he only had the time to file for office. The last time he ran it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say his candidacy attracted much interest beyond a few disgruntled right-wing nuts.
Graham spent at least three years talking to FBI agents about Dean and the Sabri organization. After three years of finding no evidence of bribery or corruption, the FBI decided to set a trap. Gary Carlson was a developer in trouble. Federal investigators were looking into a bank in Dinkytown in which he had an interest and from which he had gotten some questionable bank loans from his friend, the bank president. Carlson was already rolling over on some of his business partners and clients to buy his way out of prison. The FBI wanted Carlson to wear a wire and a small video camera to record giving money to Dean. Carlson was happy to play along.
Dean was raising money for two things last year: his campaign and a lawyer’s bill for the legal challenge to the redistricting that had gerrymandered him out of his ward. Carlson gave him money for both causes. Carlson tried to get Dean to say the money was in exchange for favors Dean would perform as a member of the City Council, but Dean never said anything like that. He had agreed to look into zoning problems Carlson said he was having with a building he owned, but, when it came time for the Council to vote on the zoning change, Dean actually voted against it because he thought it wasn’t a good idea. Carlson never bought Dean. Dean tried to help Carlson through the bureaucracy of City Hall because he believed that was his job, but he never sold his vote.
Dean was charged with four counts: accepting $5,000 in exchange for favors (this was Carlson’s first donation to the legal fund); accepting $1,200 in campaign contributions in exchange for favors; accepting another $1,000 contribution to the legal fund; and soliciting a retaining wall for his ex-wife from another developer.
Dean was prosecuted under provisions of the Hobbs Act: Extortion by Force, Violence, or Fear Under Color of Official Right. In order to prove wrongdoing, certain questions must be answered affirmatively to justify prosecution under this law: “Did the defendant induce or attempt to induce the victim to give up property or property rights?” Property here means money, and this kind of inducement happens when a used car salesman tries to sell you a used car. “Did the defendant use or attempt to use the victim’s reasonable fear of physical injury or economic harm in order to induce the victim’s consent to give up property?” This is when the used car salesman says your present car is a death trap. “Did the defendant’s conduct actually or potentially obstruct, delay, or affect interstate or foreign commerce in any (realistic) way or degree?” This is when the salesman actually sells you the car. This provision of the Hobbs Act has been so broadly interpreted that it has come to include (according to the Criminal Resource Manual) “where the obtaining of property and resulting depletion of the victim’s assets decreases the victim’s ability to make future expenditures for items in interstate commerce.” In other words, any time you spend money you’re affecting interstate commerce because spending money on one thing means you can’t spend it on something from interstate commerce. And, finally, “Was the defendant’s actual or threatened use of force, violence or fear wrongful?” The Manual explains that provision by saying, “Generally, the extortionate obtaining of property by the wrongful use of actual or threatened force or violence in a commercial dispute requires proof of a defendant’s intent to induce the victim to give up property.” In our continuing analogy of the car salesman, if you paid the salesman then he is guilty of extortion. But, more to the point of our analysis, never in any testimony or in any evidence did Dean ever say he would exchange political favors for money. Carlson tried to get Dean to say something like that a number of times, but Dean was very clear. He would help Carlson with City Hall bureaucracy (that was his job), but he was not selling his vote.
Clearly, the Hobbs Act is so vague in its application it could reasonably apply to any commercial transaction. On this basis, the constitutionality of the law should have been questioned.
Again, Dean was prosecuted under the provision “Under Color of Official Right.” The “Criminal Resource Manual General Rule states: The usual fact situation for a Hobbs Act charge under color of official right is a public official trading his/her official actions in a [sic] area in which he/she has actual authority in exchange for the payment of money.” And, further, “Most courts have also required proof of a quid pro quo understanding between the private corrupter and the public official.” There was no quid pro quo. There was no political favor exchanged for money. Carlson’s zoning problem wasn’t even in Dean’s ward. He had no authority to resolve the matter. He simply agreed to help Carlson understand the process. Dean was collecting money for a legal defense fund and for his political campaign, and the Criminal Resource Manual says, “allegedly corrupt payment made in the form of a campaign contribution to a third party campaign organization was insufficient to support a Hobbs Act conviction absent evidence of a quid pro quo.” Where is the quid pro quo? What did Dean do for Carlson? He agreed to help him understand City Hall. He did a lot more for people walking in off the street. He did a heck of a lot more for Jim Graham.
The Hobbs Act is so unconstitutionally vague as to deny citizens equal protection under the law because the law could be applied to any transaction anywhere by anyone and therefore its enforcement would be capricious and totally at the discretion of law enforcement officials.
But, if the law could be found to be constitutional, then there must be absolute proof of a quid pro quo. The defendant must tell someone, “I will exchange my vote for money.” This never happened. The case should have been dismissed.
There was a suggestion by the prosecution that Dean collected this money for his own benefit. But the defense had the lawyer’s testimony and the testimony of the legal defense fund treasurer that Dean told them he had collected the money. They both told him to hold onto it until they could set up a bank account or figure out the bills to be paid. It was a sloppy way to do bookkeeping, but, clearly, there was no criminal intent and criminal intent is essential in establishing a quid pro quo.
The use of videotape in the trial was unique and utterly devastating for the defense. After their verdict, one juror was quoted by the Star Tribune as saying, “The videotapes were pretty strong, and the fact that he put [$5,000] in his pocket.”
Toward the end of the 19th century Oscar Wilde settled the question of whether art imitates nature or nature imitates art by convincingly arguing that we view a sunset not as a work of nature but through the prism of all the perfect sunsets we have seen painted. So a sunset looks more like a Turner, or a Tintoretto, or a Rubens, than it does an occurrence of nature.
At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the earliest and greatest film directors, Sergei Eisenstein, discovered the concept of montage. It was a simple formula: one plus one equals three. That is, the second image in a series of two images takes on the meaning of the first image. He demonstrated this with a simple experiment. He showed one audience a series of two images: a child crying and a mother’s face. The audience could tell the mother was concerned. He showed a different audience a tranquil scene of a field and the same mother’s face. This audience could see joy and happiness in the same image. Each audience projected their own emotions into the second image.
The prosecution told the jury they were going to see videotapes of Dean taking a bribe. Sure enough, they were shown a man putting money on a table and Dean picking it up. They believed a picture can’t lie, so Dean was obviously taking a bribe—or, so they had been led to believe. Like Wilde’s sunset or Eisenstein’s picture of a mother, we see in an image what we have been led to see. The jurors had been told over and over again that they were going to witness a bribe. When they saw one man put money on the table and another man pick it up, they were convinced they had witnessed bribery.
The prosecution should never have been allowed to present videotapes. The defense never denied that Dean had received money from Carlson. There was no need for amateur theatricals, except as a means to influence the jury. The defense should have insisted that no videotapes be shown to the jury, because there was no way they could prevent the prosecution from framing the perception of those videos in a damaging light.
Dean took $5,000 from Carlson for the legal fund, and, on a separate occasion he took another $1,000. Is it illegal for a council member to take money for a worthwhile cause? Of course not! The mayor and council members are soliciting money for worthy causes all the time. Dean was part of the capital campaign for Little Earth housing. When he was asking corporations to contribute to Little Earth was he soliciting a bribe? The mayor and council members were part of capital campaigns for the YWCA on Lake Street, the new Urban League building on Plymouth and the new library. Why do these venerable institutions want elected officials on their capital campaigns? Because they have access to people with lots of money. Elected officials can go to big donors and ask for money for a worthy cause. Are they trading their influence for money? In the strictest sense of the term, they are. And, therefore, according to the Hobbs Act, we should prosecute any elected official who has passed around a sign up sheet for Girl Scout cookies.
Carlson also gave Dean $1,200 for his political campaign. Is that illegal? No. But it looked fishy to Dean so he never gave the money over to his campaign treasurer because he suspected the names on the envelopes were fictitious. The money was still in the envelopes when the FBI raided his house just before the Primary. Dean had been thinking he would probably have to return the money to Carlson.
The $1,200 was more than the legal limit for one contributor to give to a campaign. Dean explained the campaign limits to Carlson. Carlson said he wanted to give more than the legal limit. Dean said he couldn’t accept more than the limit, but Carlson could get friends or family to donate to the campaign. This is called bundling. One contributor can bundle several donations and make a big impression on a candidate. Although the practice is legal, it can certainly be abused.
Kevin McDonald was running against Sandy Colvin Roy last year in Ward 12. He looked at her campaign contributors list and discovered that 26 subcontractors of Klodt Development Company had made a contribution to Roy’s campaign. There is no proof that any of those subcontractors acted illegally. There is no proof that Klodt asked the subcontractors to send in a check and then he would send them back a check for the same amount. There is certainly no proof that this large bundled campaign contribution that Klodt shepherded into Roy’s campaign in any way influenced her decision on granting Klodt special access to land ripe for development on Hiawatha Avenue on the new light rail line. There is no proof of any of this, but there certainly are suspicions.
Lisa Goodman, council member from Ward 7, who had virtually no opposition last year in her bid for reelection, had $103,538.76 in cash on hand on October 26, 2005, and she collected another $19,089.96 before the end of the year. How did she amass this fortune? Was it a spontaneous outpouring of support from her constituents fearful that they’d lose her representation? Or, was it the bundling of several developers who recognized that she would continue to represent downtown Minneapolis and that any zoning changes or development schemes would first have to pass under her watchful eyes?
The hypocrisy that met Dean’s conviction probably reached its zenith with a Letter of the Day published in the Star Tribune written by Lyall Schwarzkopf: “Dean Zimmermann took money to help a developer when he was an elected City Council member. That is neither casual nor gullible; it is a crime against the people of this city.”
Excuse me, Lyall, but have you been living under a rock for the last 50 years? Lyall Schwarzkopf was a Republican legislator from South Minneapolis. He was city clerk under Republican and DFL majorities. He was city coordinator, and he was on the staff of Governor Arne Carlson. He should know better than to talk such nonsense. Where do you think the money comes from, Lyall?
In addition to the developer contributions to Sandy Colvin Roy and Lisa Goodman, in the last reporting period in 2005, Don Samuels (Ward 5) reported getting about $3,000 from different developers, as did Diane Hofstede (Ward 3). In the three-month reporting period that we could check, almost all candidates received some money from developers, and, certainly, all the candidates received money from what we could call Special Interests. Didn’t these contributors expect some return on their investment? Didn’t these contributors at least expect access to the council member? Are all the members of the City Council guilty of a “crime against the people of this city”?
Is there a problem here? Yes, there is a problem. As Dylan says, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears!” We need to get money out of politics, but we also need to get some perspective on this problem. The Minneapolis City Council members are pretty small fish in a pond ruled by sharks.
Governor Tim Pawlenty has decided to break the bank and forgo public financing so he can raise as much money as the traffic will bear. Tim is an aggressive fundraiser. Even though Bush’s popularity is at an all time low, Pawlenty was unafraid to stand with him at a recent Michele Bachmann fundraiser—or was it that he wanted to stand next to the million dollars that was raised and make sure he got a cut? Four years ago when he ran, he was being paid $50,000 as a consultant for a telemarketing firm that had business before the state. The business was accused of fraud in seven states, and Pawlenty could provide no proof that he’d done anything to earn his fee other than trade the influence of his office. Why wasn’t that investigated?
George Bush and his family owned Dresser Oil Company. They sold it to Halliburton for over $7 billion. There isn’t any evidence of cash trading hands, and the worth of Halliburton was about $7 billion at the time, so we have to assume the Bushes own at least half of Halliburton. Isn’t it a conflict of interest when the President and his Pentagon award no bid contracts to Halliburton worth $3 billion? Shouldn’t we raise questions about whether it’s a good idea for Halliburton to control the oil in Iraq? Or the proposed pipeline in Afghanistan? Or, is that extortion and corruption on too grand a scale to be immediately comprehended?
But, to return to the local problem, Cam Gordon, the only elected Green Party member of the City Council (Ward 2), has proposed a set of ethical guidelines that the rest of the Minneapolis City Council would be wise to adopt:
1) I have never and will never knowingly take any money from developers, or anyone who has business pending before the City Council, campaign contributions or otherwise. I support changing Minneapolis campaign finance rules to prohibit candidates from knowingly taking money from people with business before the City.
2) I do not let anyone else, or any group (other than my family or the City for legitimate business reasons), pay for a meal, trip or admission to any event.
3) While in office, I will never accept contributions for any entity other than my campaign committee.
4) While in office, I will not serve on the board of any outside organization except in my official capacity as a City Council member.
5) I will never advise anyone about how to “get around” campaign finance rules. I demand that my campaign volunteers and contributors follow the exact letter and spirit of campaign finance rules and I reject any contributions that I find questionable.
6) I will work within the Minneapolis/5th District Green Party to clarify and raise our expectations of our candidates and elected officials, including stipulating that no endorsed Green running for City office should accept money from people with business before the City.
Cam has set a high standard for political behavior for a public official, but if the Minneapolis City Council doesn’t adopt these guidelines, it runs the risk of public contempt.
Ed Felien is publisher of Pulse of the Twin Cities and Southside Pride Neighborhood Newspaper, and served as Minneapolis City Alderman (Coucilmember) in the early ’70s.