State to Gang Strike Force: We want our money back

  • Article by: RANDY FURST
  • Star Tribune
  • December 17, 2009 - 5:48 AM

The investigation and shut-down of the Metro Gang Strike Force cost the state Department of Public Safety nearly $300,000, and now the department says it wants its money back.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion fired off a letter this month to the lame duck board that oversaw the scandal-ridden Strike Force, stating his department had incurred "extraordinary costs" dismantling the unit.

Among the expenses he wants the Strike Force to pay is $110,000 for an investigation he authorized, which concluded with a scathing report on the Strike Force's operations. He also wants reimbursement of $92,000 in wages the department paid to nine staff members who "engaged in activities above and beyond their regularly assigned duties" in connection with the shutdown.

Andy Skoogman, Campion's spokesman, said Campion felt it would be inappropriate to use taxpayer dollars to underwrite the costs. "We cleaned up the mess of the Metro Gang Strike Force -- somebody had to do it -- and the public should not have to pay for it," he said.

If the Metro Gang Strike Force Advisory Board pays the bill, it would come from the $1.2 million it has in a bank account. The money was seized by the Strike Force or realized through the sale of seized property. One of the major criticisms of the Strike Force is that it may have broken the law through improper seizures and forfeitures. Force members could face criminal charges for taking home seized property or buying it at a discount from the Strike Force.

Kori Land, attorney for the Advisory Board, said she plans to negotiate with Campion, who provided a spreadsheet of the costs.

"I haven't seen any invoices for any of those things, so that is something I have to explore further with the Department of Public Safety," Land said. Asked if Campion would negotiate, Skoogman said, "The commissioner is open to further discussion."

Land herself billed the Strike Force Advisory Board $18,600 for legal services in November, bringing to about $58,600 the amount she's billed the board since she became its attorney in mid-June, three weeks after Campion suspended the Strike Force operations.

Manila (Bud) Shaver, the Strike Force Advisory Board chair, defended the legal fees, saying in an interview last month that the board knew early on it would face some legal issues. "How much does [the Star Tribune] spend [on legal issues]?" he asked a reporter.

Campion's bill to the Strike Force totaled $293,978.33.

Land said she met with Campion on Tuesday and told him she'd negotiate the amount after the completion of a process set up in early October to collect complaints from members of the public who believed the Strike Force had improperly seized their property or cash. Established with help from the League of Minnesota Cities, the "voluntary claims process" is taking calls from complainants on a telephone hot line.

So far the hot line has received 86 phone calls. Callers were sent claim forms; 29 have been returned so far. Property was returned in one case, and two claims were denied, said Stephanie Weiss, a spokeswoman for the League. Land earlier said that much of the money was properly forfeited.

One item in Campion's bill was $56,412.52 for rent on the Strike Force headquarters in New Brighton July 1 to Dec. 31. It stayed open while former assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Luger and retired FBI agent John Egelhof searched Strike Force files. Campion had appointed them to conduct a special investigation, for which Luger charged $43,667 [$200 per hour], and Egelhof charged $63,340 [$104 per hour].

Meanwhile, the advisory board took months to shut down the operation and move evidence into a storage space off-site. Other expenses Campion listed were $6,010.88 to rent a scanner for copying files and $10,500 for the annual licensing fee for GangNet, a computerized list of suspected gang members.

Skoogman said the $92,407.22 in wages was for workers who were pulled from other duties to help dismantle the Strike Force. Campion said in his letter to Shaver that his staff answered countless phone calls and mail related to the Strike Force, managed payments, terminated services such as utilities, inventoried evidence, and disposed of guns and drugs.

He said they scanned all files digitally and compiled them in a searchable database.

Land said she wanted to see the invoices to assess what was "a legitimate expense." She said any of the $1.2 million in Strike Force funds that remain could be used for law enforcement purposes. Those could include distributing funds to the law enforcement units that made up the force, she said. The force faces lawsuits, but she said that any payouts would come from the force's insurance, not the seizure fund.

Asked how she felt about getting such a large bill from Campion, Land said, "I think my reaction was I was surprised that I didn't get notified there would be a request."

Shaver predicted some of the dollar amounts in Campion's request will change. He said the board would have to consider which of the expenses "would be appropriate to reimburse and which would not."

Land's legal bills include extensive conversations between her and Shaver and numerous responses to data practices requests from the media, including the Star Tribune.

She is the city attorney for West St. Paul. Shaver, who is that city's police chief, said the board hired her with his endorsement. "We looked at a number of attorney firms," Shaver said last month. "We chose one that we know and went forward with that." Land charges the board $165 an hour, which she said is a standard fee for attorneys working for city governments.

In private practice, attorneys routinely charge $300 to $500 an hour. Her fees have been paid out of the $1.2 million fund.

Joe Daly, a professor at Hamline University Law School, said he believed the $58,600 in legal fees is reasonable. "I don't think it's a lot of money, and there is a need for a lawyer," he said. "The Metro Gang Strike Force has a lot of legal problems."

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382

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