Conflict claimed in MnDOT inquiry

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2007 - 9:54 PM

A law firm hired by a bipartisan panel to investigate the I-35W bridge failure also represents three people suing the agency on an unrelated matter.

A key Republican legislator and a spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty say the law firm hired to help the Legislature investigate the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge has a conflict of interest.

The Minneapolis firm Gray Plant Mooty was hired last week as special counsel to the Legislature. The firm also represents three individuals who filed an unrelated lawsuit against MnDOT on Dec. 14. That suit challenges a proposed highway project in Wright and Sherburne counties.

Gray Plant Mooty lawyer Robert Stein, the lead attorney for the legislative investigation, said his firm disclosed its involvement in the highway lawsuit to the legislative selection committee before the committee made its choice.

"We don't view it as a conflict,'' said Stein, who is a former dean of the University of Minnesota Law School and a former executive director of the American Bar Association.

But Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said Saturday that the pending suit against MnDOT will "complicate the credibility'' of any findings the firm produces.

"I just learned about this yesterday and I was astonished,'' Senjem said.

Brian McClung, spokesman for Pawlenty, said Saturday in an e-mail to the Star Tribune, "I'm not a lawyer, but it is odd that the joint committee would select a law firm that is simultaneously suing MnDOT.''

McClung said it may be difficult for Stein's firm to be neutral in its investigation of MnDOT and the bridge collapse. He also said there is a risk that information uncovered by Gray Plant Mooty in the legislative probe could be shared with the firm's clients who are suing MnDOT.

The bipartisan House-Senate committee that hired Gray Plant Mooty is expected to issue a preliminary report on the bridge collapse in March. Three other investigations of the bridge collapse are pending by the National Transportation Safety Board, the state Legislative Auditor's Office and Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates private consulting firm selected by Pawlenty in August.

Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, a member of the committee that selected Gray Plant Mooty, said the committee was careful to ask about potential conflicts in the interview process. He said it was clear to DFLers on the committee that Republicans, including the governor's office, would try to discredit the process because they were against a legislative inquiry in the first place.

Cohen, a lawyer himself, said the committee didn't see any legal conflicts in hiring Gray Plant Mooty.

Nicholas Nierengarten, a lawyer for Gray Plant Mooty who is representing the three individuals in the highway lawsuit against MnDOT, said that case revolves around MnDOT's plans to improve the connection between Interstate 94 and Hwy. 10 between Clearwater and Clear Lake.

He said the suit alleges MnDOT did not properly notify the public while selecting which corridor to improve between I-94 and Hwy. 10.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213

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