Hashim Yonis, once a rising star in Minneapolis, is guilty of felony theft for pocketing soccer field rental money due the public, a Hennepin County District Court jury found Monday.
But the jury found that Yonis took less than $1,000, far less than the more than $5,000 the prosecution claimed. Jury Foreman Greg Auston called the prosecution's proof for the higher amount "woefully inadquate."
Yonis was accused of not turning over money collected from the organizer of a soccer league for weekend rental of Currie Park in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood last year. The presumptive sentence for his offense is probation and a stayed sentence of one year and one day. Prosecutor Susan Crumb said the ocnty will seek restitution of the money.
The 27-year-old North Side resident was running for a city-wide seat on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board when the allegations broke just before he filed for office. He subsequently lost jobs with both the park and school districts.
The conviction was a stunning reversal for a man that park Commissioner Scott Vreeland praised as a rising star even as he testified against Yonis. Yonis had been cited for his accomplishments by both employers. Mayor R.T. Rybak took Yonis with him to the White House to tout a city youth jobs program, and President Obama embraced him as “my East African brother.” Yonis is a refugee from Somalia’s civil war.
Crumb argued that Yonis came to regard Currie as his turf which he could run as he sought, free from oversight. “That’s what happened to Mr. Yonis – too big for his britches,” she said.
Yonis, his voice burning with emotion, last week in his testimony accused Vreeland, a commissioner for the district including Currie, and another incumbent, John Erwin, who was also seeking one of the three city-wide seats in a 10-person field, of a political conspiracy against him. He denounced a 77-name petition filed against him with Vreeland over lack of Currie soccer field time for local East African youth teams as a put-up job. The petition included names and e-mails for Somali mothers who have a low literacy rate, he said.
Testimony did not mention the $3,000 that Yonis lent his campaign in mid-August. Attorney Ira Whitlock, representing Yonis, sought to whittle away at the amount that the charge alleged, and poked at the credibility of key witness, Moises Hernandez, the organizer of a mostly Latino league, who said he paid Yonis in cash but got no receipts.
Susan Crumb said Yonis lied about when the payments started, and initially got Hernandez to lie. But Hernandez later said he or others paid Yonis weekly inside a small park building at Currie for the rentals. Worried that he’d be discovered not turning over cash, Yonis at last created a permit and turned in some money, and eventually told an investigator that more was in his office.
Whitlock argued that the Park Board forgave Hernandez more than $13,000 after he accused Yonis, but a Park Board supervisor said the alleged debt was an error. Hernandez testified that he has paid the park system some $16,000 in fees.
A group of activists concerned about birds flying into the new Vikings stadium is protesting the stadium authority's purchase of glass that hasn't been deemed "bird safe."
The Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds met with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority this week, calling for the agency to recycle the millions of dollars' worth of glass it has ordered for the stadium and instead purchase glass designed to prevent bird collisions.
Michele Kelm-Helgen, the authority's chairwoman, said officials intend to work with the Audobon Society on a bird-friendly lighting design and other operational issues. But she told the citizens' group that the decision about the glass has already been made, and said there's not room in the budget for a second order.
"To suggest that we recycle that glass, which is specifically what they asked, just doesn't make any sense," she said.
The activists responded by calling for Gov. Mark Dayton to replace Kelm-Helgen. The governor issued a short statement Friday: "I believe that Michele Kelm-Helgen is doing an outsidenting job as Chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority."
Soccer promoter Moises Hernandez described former Minneapolis park worker Hashim Yonis as someone who wanted no bills smaller than $20 when paid in cash for renting public soccer fields, but who issued no receipts.
Hernandez said he preferred to pay in cash because he collected $4 apiece from the players in his mostly Latino leagues. He rented fields at three south Minnepaolis parks. But only Yonis, who rented fields at Currie Park in the Cedar Riverside area, refused to give the receipts Hernandez wanted so that he could chase pickup players off the turf if needed.
Hernandez testified as a key prosecution witness in the second day of the trial of Yonis on a felony theft charge. The Hennepin County attorney’s office alleges Yonis pocketed money for field rentals at Currie that Hernandez gave him in 2013.
The charge is a stunning reversal for the young onetime park and school worker who lost those jobs after the allegations surfaced last year. He once was taken to the White House by Mayor R.T. Rybak to tout the city’s jobs program for teens in which he participated. He was running for a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board seat when the accusations emerged.
Hernandez denied that the Park Board forgave him a past due obligation of more than $13,000 in exchange for his statement fingering Yonis. “I never have debt,” Hernandez said through an interpreter. “I paid every week.”
Ira Whitlock, attorney for Yonis, asserted the debt forgiveness in his opening argument, but so far no evidence has been presented to document that. Whitlock sought to undermine the credibility of Hernandez by highlighting inconsistencies in his testimony.
Hernandez admitted he lied when first questioned by a park police investigator, but he said that was only because Yonis urged him to conceal any field rentals before a certain date. Prosecutor Susan Crumb asserted that was part of an effort by Yonis to conceal taking cash and not remitting it to park authorities.
Minneapolis park Commissioner Scott Vreeland testified Wednesday that he had no idea that Hashim Yonis was running for another commissioner seat when Vreeland first asked him last summer about community complaints about the rental of soccer fields at Currie Park.
Vreeland said he met with Yonis last June 29 but didn’t know until filings closed in August that Yonis was running for one of three city-wide seats on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Vreeland was seeking re-election to a separate district seat that included the Cedar-Riverside area and Currie.
Ira Whitlock, the lawyer for Yonis, is arguing that the felony theft charge against Yonis was motivated by park commissioner incumbents wanting to keep Yonis from displacing them. Yonis was put on administrative leave in mid-July after an investigation produced allegations that he pocketed money for rental of the fields. He later was allowed to resign after appealing his dismissal.
Whitlock said in his opening statement that it was known as early as January that Yonis was planning to run. He registered a campaign committee on August 23, but did not list any campaign fundraising or expenditures before that month.
Yonis was capitalizing on the recognition he gained as a park and school employee for which he’d received some citations, including a superintendent’s coin from schools leader Bernadeia Johnson. Mayor R.T. Rybak took Yonis to the White House to tell President Obama about his experiences in a city youth job training program, and Whitlock suggested he’d wowed federal officials.
Whitlock sought to portray another commissioner, John Erwin, as running against Yonis for the three at-large openings on the board. Vreeland said they were competing for three seats in a field of about 10 people, but not running head-to-head as in a traditional election.
“It was a pretty crazy election with a lot of people running," Vreeland said. “Please don’t make me explain ranked-choice voting.”
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.
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