The felony theft charge against Hashim Yonis arose from a politically motivated attempt to keep him from being elected to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, his attorney asserted Tuesday in opening arguments in his trial.
The accusation represents the first glimpse of the defense that Yonis plans to offer against the charge that he rented a Currie Park field and pocketed the money. Until the accusation surfaced, Yonis worked for both the park and school districts. The refugee from the Somali civil war was taken by former Mayor R.T. Rybak
to meet President Obama and tout the city's STEP-UP youth job and mentoring program. School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson also cited his work.
His lawyer, Ira Whitlock, argued that "this is a case about false accusations of theft" designed to keep the man park Commissioner Scott Vreeland testified was "a rising star" from displacing incumbent commissioners in 2013. Vreeland was called by prosecutor Susan Crumb.
Whitlock did not identify who specifically was behind what he described as a political conspiracy. Vreeland was one of several recipients of community complaints about weekend field rentals to adult Latino teams instead of predominantly East African youth teams from the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.
But although Vreeland represents the area as district commissioner, Yonis was running for an at-large seat in a different race. John Erwin, an at-large park commissioner who was also running for re-election, also got the complaint about rentals, Vreeland said. Erwin is on the list of potential witnesses for Yonis in the trial but Whitlock said he'd been unable to interview Erwin. Erwin said late Tuesday that he wasn't aware of any attempts to reach him.
Crumb asserted that Yonis repeatedly accepted money to rent the Currie field from Moises Hernandez, representing the Latino teams. She said the field rent was paid in cash in an outbuilding at Currie, but Hernandez was given no receipt. She said that once Vreeland confronted Yonis about the rentals, Yonis tried to cover his tracks. He turned over some money and tried to get another employee to backdate a receipt, she said. Whitlock said that Yonis was never trained by his supervisors about procedures for turning over money and issuing receipts.
The trial may hinge on the credibility of Hernandez. Crumb said his wife and stepdaughter also witnessed the cash rentals by Yonis for weekend rentals that began in early May. But Whitlock said that Hernandez has given inconsistent statements, and that a park employee found that he owed the Park Board $13,000, a debt that Whitlock said in an interview was for field rentals and later was erased. He argued that influenced the statement Hernandez gave an investigator.
Vreeland testified that he got an e-mail with a petition signed by 77 people complaining about the weekend rentals. He said he'd known Yonis for about five years, worked with him on organizing projects and found his multi-lingualism and contacts an asset.
Hashim Yonis, the former park and school employee tentatively scheduled to be tried next week on a felony theft charge, was scheduled to work conflicting hours by the two public agencies, according to their records.
Yonis normally worked a 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. day for the Minneapolis school district, according to a district response to a data practices act request filed by the Star Tribune.
The district released Yonis, a probationary employee, days after he was charged last January by the Hennepin County attorney’s office with pocketing money he collected for soccer field rentals at a park. He had been put on leave before that.
Meanwhile, a Park Board calendar for Yonis showed that he was consistently scheduled to work from 1-9 p.m.
Park Board spokeswoman Dawn Sommers said Friday that the park district is concerned about the conflicting hours, but that it acted to terminate him due to "misappropriation of public funds."
Yonis was a youth specialist assigned to work at three parks for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. It initially fired him last year for numerous alleged civil service violations after the rental allegation arose, but then agreed to allow him to resign to settle his appeal of the firing. He was also a program assistant at South High School. The school district didn't respond to the issue of conflicting hours.
Authorities contend that Yonis kept more than $5,300 from renting to adults the Currie Park artificial turf field, which was designed for youth soccer.
Yonis has denied mishandling park funds, and said he wouldn’t do anything to harm his aspirations for public service. He was running for a seat on the Park Board when the accusations of wrongdoing emerged. He was not elected.
He hasn't responded to attempts to reach him by phone, e-mail and text message.
Hennepin County District Judge Tanya Bransford ruled against an attempt by attorney, Ira Whitlock, to suppress a search of a park office Yonis occupied that yielded $1,320 in cash, to exclude a statement Yonis gave to a park police investigator.
He is tentatively scheduled for a jury trail to begin on Monday. He earlier rejected a proposed plea agreement The county offer would have required him to plead guilty, serve 90 days, and make restitution, while remaining on probation for five years.
Minneapolis will go forward with its application for a federal program that aims to improve services and neighborhoods in low-income areas.
Ten members of the City Council voted Friday in support of the city's application for a Promise Zone designation, while two, Council President Barb Johnson and Council Member Lisa Goodman, abstained from the vote.
The council did not discuss the issue before voting. But at a committee meeting earlier this week, Johnson and Goodman expressed concerns about supporting a initiative similar to others that have failed in the past. Johnson, who represents part of north Minneapolis -- including areas included in the proposed Promise Zone -- said the city needs to do more to improve schools, parks and crime rates through existing programs.
The city must submit its application by next week.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board this month approved buying a $1.8 million parcel of land on NE Marshall Street for a price of about $49 per square foot.
But at the same meeting it pitched a fit when asked to pay $5 per square foot for a tiny chunk of land a scant third of a mile way.
Some park commissioners feel the city’s development officials are gouging them by charging $14,090 for the smaller parcel. But the city has a different explanation.
The Park Board’s view, argued most passionately by Commissioner Jon Olson, is that the city has no other feasible buyer for that small parcel. It’s about half the size of a typical city lot and sits in the shadow of a rusting high-voltage transmission line tower.
The Park Board wants the land for a planned East Bank trail that will stretch from nearby NE Marshall St. to Boom Island Park. What frosted some commissioners is that they last year approved to a no-cost agreement down river on the West Bank that allowed the city to build a trail that runs through Bluff Street Park to connect with the end of the bike-foot Bridge 9.
So why not return the favor, they asked. “It’s completely ridiculous,” Olson fumed, arguing that the remnant parcel at 1326 NE Water St.is otherwise unmarketable for the city. He suggested rejecting the price, for which the city has supporting appraisals. Then the Park Board should put up signs where the trail would end at the parcel telling the citizenry why, he said.
But the city's response is that this is connected to a larger deal in which the city previously sold land to the park system for the partly developed Veterans Memorial Park. According to Wes Butler, the city's manager of residential finance, the parcel in question was held out of that sale because it was encumbered with a railroad easement. The railroad agreed to lift that easement for a price, to be paid for by the city and the Park Board. So the sale price was the city's way of collecting the Park Board's share of the easement price, plus the land's fair market value.
Commissioner John Erwin argued that the trail planned for 2016 will pay dividends for the city in increasing property values. “I mean this is the gift that keeps on giving,” he said. But some of the posturing may be with an eye on the upper riverfront’s future. “I shudder to think what they’re going to charge for the upper harbor if they’re going to charge $14,000 for this little triangle,” Erwin said, referring to a piece of city-owned land that will be divided between city plans for a business park and Park Board plans for a parkway and recreational paths.
The board sent its staff back to do some harder bargaining with the city.
(Photo above: The land lies alongside this transmission tower, with the BNSF railroad bridge in the background. Aerial photo below: The disputed parcel, outlined in yellow, is close to the Mississippi River. That's the 1400 block of NE Marshall St. at right. )
By Kelly Smith
Comedian Jon Stewart weighed in on the #pointergate controversy Wednesday night.
"The Daily Show" host mocked KSTP-TV’s report that Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges posed for a photo flashing an alleged gang symbol with a canvasser despite a city spokesperson saying that Hodges and the man were merely pointing at each other.
"That’s a gang sign? All this time, I’ve been the lead-in for a notorious gang member," Stewart said on his show, with the audience laughing at a photo of comedian Stephen Colbert pointing.
"So how does this get painted as a gang thing?" asked Stewart, showing a clip about Hodges’ open letter to residents saying that the police department had some officers who "abuse the trust" of the public. "Oh I get what this is about. … The cops are mad because the mayor criticized their conduct."
The widely criticized KSTP television story prompted a social-media sensation with the hashtag #pointergate and brought into the open an intense disagreement between the police union and the mayor that some say stretches back to her tenure on the Minneapolis City Council.
KSTP continues to stand by its report.
To see the clip of Stewart, go to here.
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