BCA maintains that FBI-led force complies with the law. But state auditor worries it skirts legislation.
An FBI-led task force that includes two agents from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) operates without a public oversight board, despite a 2010 law that mandates a board when state grant money is used.
While the BCA says the Safe Streets Task Force is in full compliance with the law, Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said Friday that the BCA is "either misinterpreting the statute or trying to find a way around it."
Paymar authored the legislation that added accountability provisions designed to prevent recurrence of abuses that led to the dismantling of the Metro Gang Strike Force in 2009.
State Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said Friday he was disturbed to learn of the bureau's position and that he would look into it.
"I think I would join with Rep. Paymar in expressing concern that this seems to be an effort to find a way around the law that the Legislature passed," Nobles said.
State law says that drug and gang task forces receiving state grants must have a public monitoring board, and other task forces in the state have them. When discussing criminal investigations, the boards go into closed sessions.
Julie Anderson, a BCA spokeswoman, said Friday that a board is not necessary for the Safe Streets Task Force because it is run by the FBI and receives no state grant money. She said the two agents are paid out of funds from the BCA operating budget. Annual wages and benefits of the two agents total $211,000.
Nobles said that when his office conducted a special review of the Metro Gang Strike Force in 2009, it "uncovered a need for greater accountability, not less."
The Strike Force was shut down amid an assortment of allegations, some cited in Nobles' report, including officer misconduct during raids, illegal seizure of property and mishandling of evidence and funds.
The Legislature conducted joint Senate and House hearings to craft reforms. In the meantime, faced with continued problems of gang warfare and illegal drugs, the FBI joined with the local U.S. attorney's office, state Department of Public Safety, and Minneapolis and St. Paul police to form the Twin Cities Safe Streets Violent Gang Task Force.
The force received $397,000 in grants from the state Office of Justice Programs in 2010 and $289,500 in 2011 to underwrite participation of Minneapolis and St. Paul police officers.
Last fall, Bob Bushman, statewide coordinator of drug and gang task forces for the state Department of Public Safety's Office of Justice Programs, wrote a report that was highly critical of the FBI task force's operations. While he did not accuse it of misconduct, he cited internal disputes and lack of focus, and said "the lack of advisory board involvement leaves the ... task force with no oversight of operations, or the selection of targets and prosecutions, no formal method for conflict resolution and no regular forum for discussion about strategy, problems or allocation of resources."
One month later, according to e-mails obtained by the Star Tribune, the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments notified the Office of Justice Programs that they were withdrawing their application for $297,000 in grant money to fund participation of a St. Paul police commander, a Minneapolis police lieutenant and two Minneapolis police officers. The application from both departments was made by the St. Paul police.
FBI: Civil liberties guarded
Howie Padilla, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department, said Friday that St. Paul decided to withdraw the request for funds because state law required the FBI task force have a state oversight board. "The practices of the FBI don't allow for any state to have oversight over a federally led task force," Padilla said.
But Padilla says the task force still has scrutiny. He said that every three months, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith and other officials discuss and review the work.
"The FBI from Washington can come out and review the task force at any point," Padilla said.
Kyle Lovan, chief counsel for the FBI's division in Minneapolis, would not comment Friday on the oversight board, but said the FBI "works extremely hard to make certain that civil liberties and the rights guaranteed especially under the First Amendment are upheld."
He said the task force has been invaluable in fostering communication among local law enforcement agencies, and has had success in prosecutions. Those statistics were not available on Friday, he said.
But Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said "the problem is transparency, and the FBI is not a transparent organization. That's why they need public oversight."
He said the "clear intent of the [state] legislation was that the operations would be run with an oversight board in an appropriate way." He said that while the FBI has a higher standard than the state when it comes to overseeing money, it has lower standards on issues of privacy.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224