Three years after Rocco Forte resigned as one of the most powerful city officials in Minneapolis, new documents show he ruled over a City Hall empire where targeted employees faced harsh retaliation, the boss engaged in an inappropriate relationship and off-color sexual remarks were common.
An extensive investigation into Forte’s behavior as regulatory services and emergency preparedness chief was released last week, eight months after the Star Tribune requested it. The documents were originally classified as private because Forte resigned in the midst of the investigation, ending a 36-year career that included six as fire chief.
Investigators found Forte made disparaging comments about sexual orientations and bullied and retaliated against employees who fell out of his good graces, creating what one employee called a “Lord of the Flies”-like work environment. Members of the “inner circle” were simultaneously rewarded with promotions or merit pay.
“Forte created a poisonous environment fueled by disrespect, intimidation and favoritism. The investigator’s report speaks for itself,” said Lori Olson, whose complaint triggered the investigation. She worked as a deputy director in the department.
Investigators found that the work environment turned hostile just as Forte began engaging in a personal — “probable sexual” — relationship with an unknown woman. Some employees believed Forte gave her preferential treatment.
In an interview Friday, Forte disputed allegations that he created a hostile work environment.
“I make absolutely no bones about the fact that I was 100 percent wrong with the relationship,” which he said was with a subordinate. “But I’m not a bigot, and I was not out to get even with people. I didn’t have to do that, quite frankly.”
He also defended his record, saying, “Nobody has promoted, nobody has hired more women, people of color or gays than I have.”
Following Olson’s complaint, the city retained an outside investigator who conducted a series of off-site interviews. A heavily redacted September 2011 investigatory memo from city human resources director Pam French to then-Mayor R.T. Rybak and Council President Barb Johnson indicated that Forte would have faced discipline, including possible termination, had he still been employed.
Anticipating the release of the 1,800-page file, Mayor Betsy Hodges last week e-mailed council members and city department heads. “While there was no final conclusion to the investigation, what we learned through the process was very troubling,” she wrote. “We hold our city leaders to the highest standards. It is clear from the investigation that our expectations for a department head were not met here.”
Now a consultant, Forte did not receive a settlement after leaving the city in June 2011 but is eligible for a $53,800 annual pension from his long career. City Attorney Susan Segal said the city has not endured any legal liability stemming from the matters described in the investigation.
The documents might have remained under wraps, but a 2012 change in state law made more data public about employees who resign during an investigation. The Star Tribune obtained an advisory opinion from the state showing the 2012 changes did not apply to many Minneapolis department heads, however. As a result, the law was amended to cover Minneapolis in 2013.
Forte oversaw a $48 million department budget and 379 employees responsible for duties including business licensing, emergency preparedness, housing inspections, 911, traffic control and construction code services. His compensation, including benefits, reached $156,000.
He garnered national renown for his work following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in 2007, earning $12,000 in 2008 alone for presentations across the country on the incident.
The investigatory file, which filled four 3-inch-thick binders, contains hundreds of heavily redacted e-mails among what appears to be Forte’s inner circle. Many of them discuss employee incompetence and retribution, while praising Forte’s leadership. The extent of the redactions make it very difficult to decipher between different employees.
One woman’s ‘fall from grace’
Some of the lengthiest allegations in the file pertain to one unnamed employee, who described her “fall from grace” that began when she was blamed for the sound not working during an audiovisual conference presentation.
She later found herself under investigation after her city-issued phone was used excessively. She told Forte that she discovered her daughter was making calls. Forte called for an investigation and later wrote a colleague, “I still think it’s a sex line and she is throwing her daughter under the bus!”
Forte then reassigned the employee off the emergency preparedness team and had her Photoshopped out of a team photograph, according to the summary.
Forte, who is not married, said Friday that the relationship with his subordinate was “95 percent” e-mail based. E-mails reviewed by investigators required a glossary to decipher a sexual code of sorts, including “Rocky - Believed to be Forte’s private parts” and “Twins - Appears throughout to reference [redacted]’s breasts.”
“Rocky has been crazy thinking of [redacted] and the Twins,” Forte wrote to the woman from his work account in 2010. “I hope we can get [redacted] and Rocky together again for some quality time!”
A group of slighted workers obtained access to some of Forte’s e-mails, which scared them to the point that they went to the basement to review them. Discovering the relationship was an “aha” moment, since “they felt [redacted] was getting preferential treatment and special privileges.”
Investigators discovered that “MLA” was code for “my loving angel.” In November 2010, someone e-mailed Forte a list of Minneapolis’ sister cities. “I want to do France!!!” someone, whose name is redacted, wrote to Forte. “I want to do MLA,” Forte responded.
Staff retreat: ‘Gossip/Rumors’
Forte seemed to be aware of conflict within his department, based on a 2008 PowerPoint presentation from an emergency preparedness staff retreat. Under the heading, “Gossip / Rumors” one slide read: “At least one person in this room feels that people come to her with problems, because they are afraid to deal with me personally.”
Most of the employees interviewed during the investigation — with some exceptions — confirmed Forte’s bullying in lengthy interviews with investigators.
One described an unhealthy, disrespectful work environment, saying, “If Forte is not picking on you, you’re glad it’s someone else.” In a 2010 e-mail, Forte responded that he enjoyed watching the weakness of someone — likely a co-worker — who was going through a family crisis. “I will use against them at some point,” he wrote.
Things remained somewhat tumultuous in the department after Forte left. His successor, Greg Stubbs, was accused of discriminating against women and spending work time with his family in Florida. He resigned in 2012. Rybak then transferred many of the department’s core responsibilities.
Forte, who now splits his time between Florida and Minnesota, said he went to counseling and spoke with a priest after leaving the city to understand how someone of his background and training could end up in this situation. He said he was working 12-hour days during this period and “got too close to some people” and admitted to making off-color jokes once in a while. He has since learned how to balance his work and personal life better.
“I had 36 years at the city,” he said. “I’ve got a few regrets, but the biggest one is that I allowed myself to be involved with an employee, and I take full responsibility for that.”