Over 39 years at the Minnesota attorney general’s office, Ken Kohnstamm worked on key cases involving the rights of people with disabilities, early efforts to combat Medicaid fraud and the battle to hold the designer of the Interstate 35W bridge accountable for its collapse.
A New Yorker who adopted Minnesota as his home and devoted himself to public service, Kohnstamm won the respect of lawyers he worked with and those he worked against.
“He was very meticulous, and was always well-prepared,” said Warren Spannaus, the former Minnesota attorney general who hired Kohnstamm. “He made me proud to be a government attorney.”
Kohnstamm, 66, died April 4 at his home in St. Paul after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
Michael Fargione was on the opposite side of the courtroom from Kohnstamm in a years-long class action suit over treatment of people with disabilities in state hospitals. The case was complicated, with implications for public policy, taxpayer money and the rights of the disabled.
Kohnstamm’s job was to defend the state in the case. But Fargione, a Legal Aid attorney, was so impressed with him that he nominated him years later for a distinguished service award from the Minnesota Justice Foundation.
“He also acted as though the best and most proper defense to our claims was to make life better for our clients,” Fargione wrote in 2012. “I never left a visit to one of the state hospitals (every one of which Ken attended) feeling that I cared more for the welfare of the people confined there than Ken Kohnstamm did.”
Kohnstamm grew up 50 miles north of New York City in Pound Ridge, N.Y., the oldest of six children. He came of age in the 1960s, heavily influenced by the Kennedys and their call to public service. He graduated from Colgate University in 1968 and spent three years teaching before heading to law school.
Over the years, he kept a quote posted in his office from Edward M. Kennedy’s eulogy of his brother Robert in 1968, which said RFK should “be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
After law school at the University of Michigan, Kohnstamm was hired by the Minnesota attorney general’s office and moved to St. Paul, where he met his wife, Naomi Perman, on a blind date in 1979. She also is an attorney.
“He was like Atticus Finch, and he was like that for our family,” Perman said. “He just always did the right thing.”
Kohnstamm, a passionate baseball fan, arrived in Minnesota as a Yankees supporter. But he didn’t stay that way, becoming a faithful Twins fan, admirer of manager Tom Kelly and a regular at Target Field.
As a young attorney, Kohnstamm launched the state’s Medicaid Fraud Division. And it was under his watch that state’s attorneys discovered the gusset plates on the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge were badly designed.
The call to public service was strong even after his cancer diagnosis, almost two years ago. He started his treatment, took care of things like roof repairs at his home and then went back to work. His last case fittingly had to do with the treatment of people with disabilities, resulting in a settlement to pay people who had been handcuffed at a state-run facility in Cambridge.
“He went back to work,” said his brother, Josh Kohnstamm, who runs a public relations firm in St. Paul. “He said, ‘They’re short of staff, and I know all of this stuff.’ ”
Kohnstamm is survived by his wife, son Adam and daughter-in-law Sarah, and son Alex. Funeral services were Tuesday at Temple Israel in Minneapolis.
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405