A refugee from Somalia’s civil war who arrived in Minneapolis speaking no English 12 years ago, Hashim Yonis soon became a rising star.
He graduated from Edison High School and then St. Olaf College, working summers at City Hall as a public works intern and becoming a Page Foundation scholar. He also attracted the eye of Mayor R.T. Rybak, who invited him to speak at a White House summer jobs initiative in 2012.
That earned him a hug from President Obama and a commemorative coin from school Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. He was added to South High School’s staff to advocate for Somali students after an ethnically tinged fracas last year.
He filed last summer to run for a seat on the Park Board, where he also worked, with Rybak’s backing.
But that all came tumbling down in the past few months, culminating Friday when he was charged with felony theft by swindle, accused of pocketing money from the rental of a Minneapolis parks soccer field. Authorities contend that Yonis kept more than $5,300 from renting the Currie Park artificial turf field, which was designed for youth soccer, to adults
He has lost both his park job and as of Tuesday his school post. He has retained heavyweight criminal defense attorney Earl Gray. But he denied wrongdoing.
“Contrary to the allegations, I did not misappropriate any park funds. I have worked really hard to build a career and a reputation, and would not do anything to harm my aspirations for public service,” Yonis, 26, said in an interview on Friday.
But even as he filed for the citywide Park Board seat on Aug. 8, Yonis knew he was under investigation. He’d been questioned nearly two weeks earlier by Park Police Sgt. Richard Doll, who was investigating a case that began with complaints by neighbors around the park about field time for their kids. Two days after he filed, Yonis loaned his campaign $3,000, which accounted for most of his campaign’s funds. He finished well back in a field of 10 candidates in November’s election.
After the Park Board fired him in August, Yonis appealed and then made a deal in which the firing was rescinded in exchange for his agreement to resign rather than fight the charges. The school board put him on administrative leave two days after news broke of his initial firing and terminated the probationary employee on Tuesday.
Asked about the charges Friday, he said the allegations are politically motivated, but would not comment about who would do that.
According to the complaint, Yonis collected more than $3,500 in cash last spring from the organizer of an informal weekend soccer league for Latino adults and children. But the largely East African community around the park began to complain to Commissioner Scott Vreeland and other park employees that fields weren’t available for their kids.
Afterward, Yonis tried to cover his tracks, according to Doll’s complaint, by telling the soccer organizer not to tell park officials that Yonis had rented the field, or he’d not rent it again. The complaint also alleges that Yonis tried to postdate permits. In addition to the previous rentals, Yonis said he had collected another $1,320 in cash rentals that the complaint said Doll and a supervisor found in a bag on the shelf of the office used by Yonis, hidden in a pile of notebooks.
The organizer told Doll that he’d asked Yonis for a receipt for the rentals to show to neighbors, but told investigators that Yonis repeatedly refused to give him one. The complaint said that he paid Yonis inside an equipment shed at the field, where Yonis would count the money and put it in his pocket.
On Friday, Yonis said that the county attorney should focus on the unsolved killings of Somali youth. “Here you have the county crucifying me and wasting the taxpayers’ money,” he said. “I’m going to fight this to the end.”