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Continued: Minneapolis civil rights director feels heat turned up

  • Article by: TERRY COLLINS and DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Last update: January 8, 2008 - 11:47 PM

Within a two-week span, three Minneapolis civil rights investigators have resigned and another has been fired amid accusations of a hostile work environment since director Michael Jordan took over the department last June.

The exodus has intensified the criticism of Jordan, who was already under fire for his handling of the discrimination complaints of several black police officers who went on to sue the city.

Council Member Ralph Remington, whose office has been deluged with calls about the department said, "If what I'm hearing is true, I find this unconscionable."

Jordan acknowledged the complaints in an interview Tuesday but defended his leadership.

In nominating Jordan last year, Mayor R.T. Rybak said he would bring "a high level of both professionalism and passion" to the once-beleaguered department.

On Tuesday, Rybak said he fully supports Jordan.

"We hired a tough manager who will be held accountable for results when he comes up for review in several months," he said, and urged critics not to rush to judgment. "Time will reveal."

But former and current workers say privately that productivity has already declined at the hands of Jordan and Ron Brandon, a top supervisor and the subject of a year-long human resources investigation alleging gender discrimination in the department.

Investigators Doug Belton, Maria Just and Meilin Opinata each resigned last month. Susan Benjamin was fired Dec. 28. Ingrid Tollefson was fired last July. Investigators contacted declined to be interviewed for this article.

Documents cite complaints

However, documents obtained by the Star Tribune show that the number of cases closed in the department over the past six months dropped by more than half under Jordan's leadership. Other documents describe a hostile work environment.

Some of the documents describe the Tollefson case. Before departing, former director Michael Browne wrote an evaluation praising her work, recommended that she be considered for leadership opportunities and that her probation end.

But the following month, Jordan told Tollefson that he wanted to extend her year-long probation by 60 days, because he had not had sufficient time to observe and evaluate her performance. Tollefson reluctantly signed an agreement before consulting her union, which questioned Jordan's rationale.

After Tollefson refused to sign a revised agreement, Jordan fired her on July 16, a day short of her one-year anniversary.

Browne also had removed Brandon from his supervisory duties because of the human resources investigation, but Jordan reinstated him because "they would have found a smoking gun by now."

"I know some of the investigators didn't like that, but nothing obligates me to make sure they like their bosses," he said.

The workers, some fresh out of law school, handled cases ranging from police misconduct to discrimination, including one complaint filed against former fire chief Bonnie Bleskachek.

Three of the investigators were hired about a year ago. Jordan said that indicates there were numerous department vacancies during another recent period. He didn't want to speculate why each investigator wanted to leave. But he said Benjamin didn't pass her probation period for "very good reasons" and Belton left for an excellent managerial position at Target.

Jordan doesn't dispute that the number of closed cases has decreased, saying during that time the department lost Tollefson and was bringing Belton up to speed. Investigators also lost time to work on cases to attend training to make the department more efficient, he said.

'Pulp Fiction' makes a point

Department employees said that Jordan set an adversarial tone in his first staff meeting, quoting from the Bible, similar to the Samuel L. Jackson character from the cult movie "Pulp Fiction." "... And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to destroy and poison my brothers," Jordan said, citing Ezekiel 25:17. "And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee."

They said Jordan then added, "If anybody wants to pack their bags, it's a sign that they can't hang."

Jordan said he made the remarks to establish a tone.

"There was a history of people back-biting in the department. In fact, some of the very folks who departed were part of that," he said.

Commission upset, too

Last month, Jordan was ripped by the city's civil rights commission for not looking into several black police officers' discrimination claims that have become a federal lawsuit.

Commission Chairwoman Anita Urvina Davis said, "We're the closest group to the department and we had to find out about [Jordan meeting with the police officers] in the newspaper like everybody else. So, you can imagine why we're upset."

Jordan described the commission meeting as acrimonious but said he repeatedly explained the reasons why he hadn't filed a complaint on behalf of the officers. The officers' concerns had also been in the public domain since August, but none of the commission members called him to discuss them. Members also have the right to look into complaints, he said.

Last month, council member Elizabeth Glidden voted against during Jordan's reappointment as director. Remington abstained.

"I do not have faith he is the right person for the job," she said.

Jordan is no stranger to controversy. In 1996, Gov. Arne Carlson fired Jordan as the state public safety commissioner, citing "insubordination" and poor judgment, reportedly because Jordan had tried to keep a spokesman on the payroll who didn't promptly notify the governor about a death threat, which later proved unfounded.

Jordan said he's been managing a wide range of endeavors for 30 years. He's now in charge of 25 employees and has hired four people on contract to investigate cases. One was a law clerk for a federal court judge and speaks three languages, he said.

The loss of the five investigators is "a hiccup that will slow us down for a while, but ultimately be better for the department," Jordan said. He said four will be replaced.

"I've been here for seven months," he said. "Give me another six and I'll have this thing fixed."

tcollins@startribune.com 612-673-1790 dchanen@startribune.com 612-673-4465

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