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A move to make up for Strike Force misdeeds

  • Article by: RANDY FURST
  • Star Tribune
  • December 16, 2010 - 10:08 PM

Victims of the scandal-ridden Metro Gang Strike Force are eligible for a share of $3 million set aside by a settlement approved Thursday in federal court in St. Paul.

"It's a good thing to put this entire matter in the rear-view mirror," U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen said.

About 100 people so far have claimed they were victimized by the Strike Force, a multi-jurisdiction police agency, abolished in July 2009, that was the subject of four investigations as well as legislative hearings.

Findings of wrongdoing by the unit included seizing property from people who weren't charged and failing to give them proper forfeiture notices.

To be eligible for a share of the settlement, people must demonstrate that the unit improperly seized their money or property. The deadline for claims is Dec. 30.

Any money that remains in the $3 million pool after claims are paid is expected to go into a fund to train officers on procedures designed to prevent another Strike Force scandal.

Three lawyers who filed the lawsuit, which was certified as a class action for the purposes of the settlement, will receive $800,000, and another $25,000 if the number of claimants exceeds 100. Ericksen approved the payment, calling it a "fair compensation." The legal fees will not come out of the $3 million settlement.

Under the settlement's terms, people who say the force victimized them will have their cases weighed by Mark Gehan, a St. Paul attorney named special master. He will make recommendations to the court on each claim. Gehan was the special master in a landmark tobacco lawsuit settled in Minnesota in the late 1990s.

Claims and lawyers fees will be paid by the League of Minnesota Cities Trust Fund, the insurance arm of the league, which insured the Strike Force.

"The League of Minnesota Cities does not pass out $3 million readily and easily, so they have to have come to a conclusion that they were at grave risk if this case went to trial," said Joseph Daly, a Hamline University law professor who followed the Strike Force scandal since it began to unravel publicly in April 2009.

Manila (Bud) Shaver, chairman of the advisory board that oversaw the Strike Force, acknowledged Thursday that "going to trial has risks." He said a jury could award more or less than the settlement amount. "To make an assumption on an award amount and assign wrongdoing based on that is just that -- an assumption," he said.

Shaver called the settlement "a most equitable resolution to this," one that assures that "any victim that comes forward can be made whole if they were wronged."

Liability not admitted

Joseph Flynn, attorney for the league, said the defendants denied liability. Had the case gone to trial, he'd have mounted a vigorous defense, arguing that the Strike Force had done good police work that benefited the community, he said.

But he called the settlement "fair, adequate and reasonable." Those sentiments were echoed by Randy Hopper, the lead attorney for Strike Force victims, and by Judge Ericksen.

Hopper, who outlined the settlement to Ericksen, referred to the "egregious" conduct of Strike Force officers. He said the settlement would "bring closure to an unfortunate, ugly chapter in Minnesota history." Afterward, he said, "Justice has been done," and "we can now go forward to see that victims are properly compensated."

As part of the settlement, five alleged victims whose names appear in the suit each will be paid $2,500, beyond any money they may receive as a result of claims they file.

Behind the lawsuit was a rash of allegations that spilled out in investigations by the state legislative auditor and a special panel appointed by state Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion. Among the allegations were claims that Strike Force officers targeted minorities, conducted unjustified raids, seized property and money even though no one was charged and failed to give people forfeiture notices as required by law.

Two Minneapolis police officers were fired over their Strike Force activity, though one got his job back. The Strike Force's office manager was dismissed by the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office.

The U.S. Justice Department prosecuted Jason Andersen, a Strike Force officer, for allegedly kicking a black teenager in the head, but a jury found him not guilty.

The FBI conducted a yearlong investigation of the Strike Force. But the U.S. Justice Department has not said whether it plans other prosecutions. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has said his office did not plan to file state charges against the Strike Force officers.

People who want to file a claim against the Strike Force can call 1-866-211-0079 or go to www.mgsfsettlement.com before Dec. 30.

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382

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