The felony theft charge against Hashim Yonis arose from a politically motivated attempt to keep him from being elected to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, his attorney asserted Tuesday in opening arguments in his trial.
The accusation represents the first glimpse of the defense that Yonis plans to offer against the charge that he rented a Currie Park field and pocketed the money. Until the accusation surfaced, Yonis worked for both the park and school districts. The refugee from the Somali civil war was taken by former Mayor R.T. Rybak
to meet President Obama and tout the city's STEP-UP youth job and mentoring program. School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson also cited his work.
His lawyer, Ira Whitlock, argued that "this is a case about false accusations of theft" designed to keep the man park Commissioner Scott Vreeland testified was "a rising star" from displacing incumbent commissioners in 2013. Vreeland was called by prosecutor Susan Crumb.
Whitlock did not identify who specifically was behind what he described as a political conspiracy. Vreeland was one of several recipients of community complaints about weekend field rentals to adult Latino teams instead of predominantly East African youth teams from the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.
But although Vreeland represents the area as district commissioner, Yonis was running for an at-large seat in a different race. John Erwin, an at-large park commissioner who was also running for re-election, also got the complaint about rentals, Vreeland said. Erwin is on the list of potential witnesses for Yonis in the trial but Whitlock said he'd been unable to interview Erwin. Erwin said late Tuesday that he wasn't aware of any attempts to reach him.
Crumb asserted that Yonis repeatedly accepted money to rent the Currie field from Moises Hernandez, representing the Latino teams. She said the field rent was paid in cash in an outbuilding at Currie, but Hernandez was given no receipt. She said that once Vreeland confronted Yonis about the rentals, Yonis tried to cover his tracks. He turned over some money and tried to get another employee to backdate a receipt, she said. Whitlock said that Yonis was never trained by his supervisors about procedures for turning over money and issuing receipts.
The trial may hinge on the credibility of Hernandez. Crumb said his wife and stepdaughter also witnessed the cash rentals by Yonis for weekend rentals that began in early May. But Whitlock said that Hernandez has given inconsistent statements, and that a park employee found that he owed the Park Board $13,000, a debt that Whitlock said in an interview was for field rentals and later was erased. He argued that influenced the statement Hernandez gave an investigator.
Vreeland testified that he got an e-mail with a petition signed by 77 people complaining about the weekend rentals. He said he'd known Yonis for about five years, worked with him on organizing projects and found his multi-lingualism and contacts an asset.