Tom Steward

Tom Steward is the bureau chief of's Minnesota Bureau, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is an investigative reporter focused on waste, fraud and abuse in government and has previously worked for WCCO-TV (CBS) and KSTP-TV (ABC) in the Twin Cities. Follow Tom on Facebook and Twitter.

Provocative Filmmakers Frozen Out of Winona Festival Back at It

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: April 3, 2014 - 4:13 PM

We’ve seen this movie before.  An indy film director with a compelling script shunned by Hollywood, despite a wall of awards, reviews and box office results.

The  same director already infamous here for being the only filmmaker whose work was pulled and banned by the publically funded Frozen River Film Festival in Winona earlier this year without any objections from the state’s art community.

Phelim McAleer, co-director of “FrackNation,” is back with yet another provocative project that’s not about to get help from Hollywood.

“This is your chance to bypass the media “information gatekeepers” to get tens of millions of Americans thinking about what happened in Philadelphia. Please send a message that we don't have to wait for someone else to tell the stories that matter, we can do it ourselves,” McAleer and his co-directors state in an email appeal that’s gaining momentum behind the scenes.

The screenplay?  The real life story of a convicted killer the directors call the biggest mass murderer in American history—Dr. Kermit Gosnell. The Philadelphia abortion doctor was sentenced to life in prison following convictions for first degree murder and manslaughter.

“The mainstream media or Hollywood don't think this is a story. Even though Gosnell killed more people than Gary Ridgeway, John Wayne Gacy, the Zodiac Killer and Ted Bundy combined.  In a 30 year killing spree, it is thought he killed 1000s of babies,” the email goes on to say.

But a twist in the plot could still lead to the making of the proposed $2.1 million scripted TV movie.  McAleer has turned to the audience for financial support to raise the budget through voluntary online individual contributions on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo.

It’s the same method used to fund “FrackNation,” the feature documentary that exposed Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland.” Instead of raising about $200,000, however, this time the directors need $2.1 million to film a scripted drama based on Gosnell’s trial and legal proceedings. Contributions will be returned if the total comes up short.

A recent project update shows at least one Minnesotan with ties to Hollywood supports the film.  Kevin Sorbo, the actor who grew up in Mound and currently stars in “God’s Not Dead,” tweeted “Pro-Life or Pro-Choice….doesn't matter with what this guy did.”

Less than a week into the 45 day campaign, more than $315,000 has been pledged toward the project.  If they reach their goal, it might just be a Hollywood ending for the anti-establishment venture—without the Hollywood.

Will Mysterious Obama Donor Surface at President’s Union Depot Speech?

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: February 26, 2014 - 11:03 AM

The question of the day:  Will controversial Obama and Minnesota DFL contributor Johannes Marliem be in the audience for today’s speech by President Barack Obama at St. Paul’s Union Depot?

If Marliem plans to show up, he hasn’t given a hint in his Twitter account.  His only tweet at the time of this writing today referred to another of his passions:  the plight of endangered orangutans in his native Indonesia.

The rise of the 29-year-old Orono businessman and his wife Mai Chie Thor as big-time Democratic donors has been nothing short of miraculous, providing a windfall for state and national political groups.    

Marliem gave $225,000 to the 2013 Obama inauguration, by far Minnesota’s biggest contribution to the gala. The Indonesian national and permanent US resident also raised $70,000 and made a personal $2,500 contribution to the 2012 Obama campaign.  His wife outbid Marliem by raising $100,000 for the Democrats in 2012, Federal Election Commission records show.

More recently in 2013, Marliem donated $50,000 to the Minnesota DFL and $25,000 to WIN Minnesota, a Democratic affiliated group, according to Minnesota's Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board reports.

So why does a prominent Minnesota campaign finance and political analyst suggest state Democrats give his money back?  As it turns out, Marliem plead guilty and was convicted of theft by swindle in Hennepin County Court in 2010, a gross misdemeanor involving more than $11,000 in bad checks.

“Overall, the DFL loses some moral high ground on political donations taking money from him, and they should return the money,” said David Schultz, past president of Common Cause Minnesota and political analyst and professor at Hamline University.

National Democrats told the Star Tribune back in April 2013 that they only wish they’d had the chance to return Marliem’s $72,500 in donations.  “The criminal background of this individual did not come up in the routine vetting conducted at the time of the contribution. This contribution would not have been accepted by the (Obama Victory Fund) if these facts had been known at the time,” said Brad Woodhouse, an official with the Democratic National Committee.

That Marliem and his spouse find themselves in this position marks quite a turnaround in the past five years. Public records indicate their $132,000 Maplewood townhome was foreclosed on in June 2009.  By February 2012 the couple had purchased a $2 million waterfront mansion on a private road overlooking Lake Minnetonka, county documents show. 

Efforts to reach Marliem, DFL party chairman Ken Martin and Win Minnesota executive director Adam Duininck were unsuccessful.  But that may not be the last of it.

“This is the type of donation that looks bad for the DFL and it could be used against them politically in 2014,” said Schultz.

                                                                                   Marliem's $2 million Lake Minnetonka home.

Banned in Winona: The Sequel

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: January 25, 2014 - 2:17 PM

Sunday January 26 at 10 am was supposed to be the screening time for “FrackNation” until the film became the first cancellation ever by the Frozen River Film Festival. 

But don’t worry about the event running out of excuses for banning the feature documentary at the last minute from the silver screen in Winona. 

A newly released email chain of the conversation between the festival staff and the film’s directors adds to the evolving excuse list of explanations being tallied by Watchdog Minnesota Bureau.  Readers have plenty of choices, unlike the residents of Winona when it comes to documentary films this week depicting both sides of an issue of critical local importance—hydraulic fracturing.

The emails released by the directors to one of “FrackNation’s” fiercest critics, blogger Steven Horn, appear to debunk the Winona festival’s claim that the screening was contingent on participation in a panel post-showing. 

There may well be other emails out there that shed more light on the controversy, but these establish the order of events that led to FRFF pulling the plug on the documentary.  If FRFF has other emails to add to the record, the organizers, who have not responded to our inquiries to date, know where to find us. 

“The emails clearly show the film festivals claim to be bogus,” said Phelim McAleer today. “They moved the screening to a different time because no film maker was present. They were happy with it. Then they gave into pressure.”

Here’s a review of the reasons publicly stated for the clumsy cancellation/censorship of the documentary by an event in jeopardy of being rebranded the Not Ready for Prime Time Film Festival.  (The .com domain remains available at last check.) 

1/ Questions about financing (see fundraising campaign for the film on Kickstarter.)

2/ FRFF’s sister festival in Telluride somehow figured into the decision (denied by Mountainfilm in a       Washington Times story.)

3/ ”A bad film” (see New York Times, Variety, Associated Press and other reviews.)

4/ Alleged “bullying and harassment of women” (see Horn's blog post.)

5/ No speaker provided for Q & A session (see 1/7/14 FRFF email.)

6/ $10,000 for Q & A session (no mention in email chain).

7/ Hollywood directors stirring up publicity for film (gasp!)

True, in a December 19, 2013 email festival director Crystal Hegge asked whether one of the film’s co-directors would be able to participate in a panel following a 1 p.m. Sunday showing that was “about 90% confirmed.”   

A December 20, 2013 reply from co-director Magdalena Segieda informed Hegge that “unfortunately, no one from the FrackNation team would be able to come. Let me know when you set the the (sic) time.  I will wait for your laurel to start promoting the screening.”

Hegge went ahead and booked the film without mention of the Q & A in a January 7, 2014 email moving “FrackNation” to a less desirable time.  “The screening will be at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, January 26. Has the exhibition files been sent yet? Also, please fill out the attached form for our files.”

Fast forward to January 17 when Hegge brought the curtain down.  “I am writing to inform you that we will not be showing FRACKNATION during our 2014 festival. Due to the high quantity of films at the festival we have decided not to show this feature film without a filmmaker attendant.”

Despite the "high quantity of films" the documentary was replaced with a panel discussion.  Segieda’s email appeal went nowhere.  “But we have already published and promoted the screening with time and address to thousands of our fans on our social media...”

Hegge left the door open, however.  “Thank you for your submission and please consider us in the future.”

Here’s hoping they do.  After all, their company is Hard Boiled Films.

Banned in Winona: The Frozen River Film Festival’s Fracking Fiasco

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: January 24, 2014 - 3:18 PM

An award was won before the film festival even got underway in Winona this week. The first ever “Officially Censored by the Frozen River Film Festival” citation went to “FrackNation” for being the only film cancelled before anyone was allowed to see it in the event’s nine year history. 

“I just thought the people of Minnesota would appreciate a different point of view but the environmentalist elites won’t allow them to be exposed to an alternative point of view,” said Phelim McAleer, the deposed film’s co-director and narrator who conferred the award.  “…Movies for zombies.  No dissent allowed.”

As a journalist and documentary producer on issues from endangered Indonesian tigers (Animal Planet) to Minnesota’s juvenile justice system (KSTP-TV) to what inspires artists to create (NPR/CBC), no doubt I take the abrupt cancellation/censorship—take your pick—of the feature documentary a bit personally.  Maybe you should too.

Not only because of the implied threat to free speech. Consider that the “cancellation” was made possible with $32,000 of taxpayer funding from the Minnesota State Arts Board/Legacy Amendment fund that underwrites the festival.  

The banned film was scheduled in the first place to provide balance for an anti-fracking industry film, “Gaslands II.”  And fracking remains an intensely contested issue in Winona, a Mississippi River crossroads for mining and shipping frac sand. 

“The decision does nothing to encourage the marketplace-of-ideas concept that underlies the First Amendment. Free speech generally means more speech, not less, and documentaries certainly are considered speech under the law,” said Steven Aggeraard, a local attorney who’s an expert on First Amendment issues.  “Anytime an organization that benefits at least in part from taxpayer funding makes decisions about what is or is not appropriate for the taxpayers to see, it is worth asking questions about how and why those decisions were made. That is particularly true if decisions are made to further some viewpoints over others.”

The storyline on what led the festival board to cancel “FrackNation” keeps evolving (financing, participation in a Q and A, etc.)  FRFF board members never responded to repeated requests to articulate why they for all practical purposes blacklisted “FrackNation,” whose directors’ credits include the BBC, CBC and RTE.  

Perhaps it’s not that complicated.  Could it be the film made too convincing a case that some opponents of hydraulic fracturing distort the facts, science and economics behind the boom?

After all, “FrackNation” won over its most skeptical audience—film critics.  Variety found “plenty to chew over, including the possibility that perhaps all is not as simple as it seems in the world of nonrenewable energy.”  The New York Times said the film “is no tossed-off, pro-business pamphlet. Methodically researched and assembled (and financed by thousands of small donations from an online campaign)…”  The New York Post review found the film “gleefully shreds assertions made in the anti-fracking documentary “Gasland…”

Get the picture?  Sadly, the residents of Winona will not.

Tropical Trip by Top Official Adds to MNsure Applicant's Frustrations

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: December 12, 2013 - 12:19 PM

News of the tropical vacation trip recently taken by MNsure’s top official, April Todd-Malmlov, in the midst of the state exchange’s troubled rollout, left Barb Stonebraker speechless—almost.

Previous posts detailed the Victoria woman’s trials and tribulations in close to 100 hours spent sparring online and on the horn with MNsure.  Then came word of Todd-Malmlov’s trip to Costa Rica and two week out of office break in the last half of November. 

“There’s no excuse for it. Absolutely none and to stick up for her and the situation is just nuts,” said Stonebraker of Governor Dayton and the MNsure Board of Directors signing off on the trip.

In my Watchdog Minnesota Bureau report MNsure staff confirmed Todd-Malmov was out of the office for eight business days before the two-day Thanksgiving Day holiday for state employees.

“Our leadership here works very, very closely with April, and the rest of the MNsure staff are deeply trusted and have the full faith and trust of our executive director and were at the helm in partnership with April even when she was out of the office,” said Jenni Bowring-McDonough, media relations coordinator for MNsure.

To be sure, Todd-Malmlov was available by phone and email and communicated with MNsure personnel every day, according to MNsure communications staff.

Yet Todd-Malmov’s getaway comes after similar revelations that led to the resignation of Rebecca Pearce, the director of Maryland’s state health exchange, Dec. 6. Pearce came under fire for taking a Caribbean vacation in the midst of a rocky roll-out of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange.  Media reports indicate Pearce was in the Cayman Islands and unavailable during Thanksgiving week. Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a Democrat, told the Baltimore Sun, “We needed all hands on deck. Now is not the time to take a vacation.”

From the perspective of someone on the ground level of trying to penetrate MNsure, Barb Stonebraker says there’s needs to be accountability for the technical glitches, systematic failures and ill-timed trips in Minnesota as well, starting at the top.

“I would like her (Todd-Malmlov) to be held responsible,” said Stonebraker.  “Companies don’t take off when there is peak season or they don’t let anyone take vacations. I worked for a household goods moving company and you did not take a two week vacation during peak season.  Or if you’re implementing something, you do not take a vacation.  I would like her to be replaced.”


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