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“I wasn’t there to judge anybody. … When they did swear, they’d look at me, ‘Sorry, Mom.’ ” Former inmate LeAnn Sargent

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Maple Grove council member reflects on life in workhouse

  • Article by: James Eli Shiffer
  • Star Tribune
  • July 26, 2014 - 7:09 PM

Fresh from the county workhouse, LeAnn Sargent will have plenty to talk about when she rejoins the Maple Grove City Council next month. The foul language of her fellow inmates, the fattening jailhouse cuisine, confinement in a cell with only one or two breaks each day.

Sargent thinks her 23 years on the council outweigh a couple of months behind bars for a misdemeanor conviction of financially exploiting her elderly father. She missed five council meetings while serving her sentence, but thinks she can take up right where she left off.

“I’m going to go and do my job,” Sargent, 63, said last week.

That idea has been understandably tough to stomach for her fellow council members and the mayor. At an April 21 council meeting, they spoke, one by one, their faces grim, and called on her to resign.

No dice. Sargent and her supporters say a mistake in her private life is no reason to quit in the middle of a four-year term.

State law says only a criminal violation of the oath of office or an “infamous crime” can force a council member to step down, and the courts have interpreted that as a felony. Sargent got a big break from a relatively new judge, Luis Bartolomei, who sentenced her for a misdemeanor because he didn’t want to force her off the council.

County Attorney Mike Freeman is making a long-shot appeal to overturn the sentence. Short of that happening, neither the people nor the politicians of Maple Grove can dislodge Sargent from her seat. Maple Grove has no mechanism for recalling electing officials, unlike some metro cities.

With 64,000 residents and a $35 million city budget, Maple Grove is hardly a sleepy suburb. Yet the scope of this controversy is a new one for Mayor Mark Steffenson.

“I don’t expect her to resign,” Steffenson said. “As the mayor leading the city as a whole, I have to do what I can to make sure we work together … That may be difficult. We’ll do the best we can.”

The voices calling for Sargent’s ouster have quieted. Maybe it’s the summer lull, or perhaps the empty seat behind Sargent’s nameplate as the council considered a sewer extension, swore in new police officers, or praised the success of Maple Grove Days.

Sargent was running for re-election in 2012 when the city learned of the nasty court dispute between her and her half-brother. It was an all-too-common conflict, in which the heirs to an aging parent’s estate accuse each other of greed and neglect.

Except in this case, evidence emerged that Sargent had taken advantage of her power-of-attorney to help herself to her father’s money. The voters kept her in office that fall, but this year, she pleaded guilty to one count of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult. She agreed to pay restitution of $107,348 to her late father’s estate and $12,918 to her half-brother, and apologized in court.

Two weeks later, Sargent apologized at the council meeting, but said she was determined to stick around and mentioned the Hwy. 610 extension as one thing she’d like to see through. She also said that only one side of the story had been told.

Sargent repeated that sentiment in my conversation with her last week, and she sounded anything but repentant.

“Instead of putting my dad in a nursing home … I lovingly took care of him for two and a half years,” she said. She didn’t get some things in writing from him, she said, and that’s why she pleaded guilty.

The branches of the trees were still bare when she entered the Hennepin Adult Corrections Facility. Inside, she found herself the oldest resident of the women’s section, with her own “cement slab” room.

Sargent said she came to a few conclusions in the workhouse. Some of the other inmates should be in treatment, not jail, and everyone deserves respect.

Then there’s the food. A pat of butter is a treat to be enjoyed, with consequences. “They talk about going to college and the freshman 15. In the workhouse … you have the workhouse 15.”

And the vulgarity. “I wasn’t there to judge anybody. I got along with them fine. When they did swear, they’d look at me, ‘Sorry, Mom.’ ”

Sargent read many books. A few times, she did “suicide watch,” keeping an eye on inmates at risk of hurting themselves.

On July 5, Sargent said goodbye to her fellow inmates, some of whom were bound for Shakopee for much longer stays. They hugged her and thanked her for asking them to watch their language. “I basically said, ‘Eventually, you’re going to get out of here. You’re going to want to get a job. That type of language isn’t going to win you any Brownie points.’ ”

And with that, Sargent emerged from the workhouse and noticed that the trees had turned lush and green. The next Maple Grove City Council meeting is scheduled for Aug. 4.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.

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