Stephen Frenz, once one of the largest landlords in Minneapolis, was sentenced Friday in Hennepin County District Court to 60 days in the county workhouse for a perjury conviction arising from phony apartment leases and records he submitted to housing court nearly four years ago.

Frenz, 56, declined to speak “on the advice of counsel” before Judge Robert Awsumb handed down the sentence, which includes up to three years’ probation, 200 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine.

Frenz may have the opportunity for work release and home monitoring, and Awsumb said that after the sentences and community hours were satisfied, he would consider ending the probation sooner.

“We’re grateful the judge gave him a chance to get off probation early,” said Robert Sicoli, Frenz’s attorney. “We think he shouldn’t have gotten any jail time, but we understand the judge has discretion.”

Sicoli said he would consult with Frenz but anticipates an appeal. Frenz declined a reporter’s request for comment after the hearing.

Frenz once owned and operated more than 60 apartment buildings in Minneapolis. But lawyers from Faegre Baker Daniels, who represented tenants pro bono, uncovered evidence in 2016 that Frenz was in a financial partnership with Spiros Zorbalas, who was banned by the city in 2010 from holding rental licenses.

The city dug deeper and confirmed the two men’s deep business connection.

That led the City Council to revoke all of Frenz’s rental licenses, forcing him to sell his properties.

Frenz’s October perjury conviction grew out of the same 2016 housing court case that ended his career as a landlord. He was trying to persuade Jason Hutchison, a housing court referee, to throw out a tenants’ remedies action brought against him on behalf of low-income tenants who were trying to restore heat to their south Minneapolis apartments during a bitter January cold spell.

Frenz argued that a majority of tenants did not sign on to the suit, which was required under state statute. He had children’s shoes and clothes planted in empty apartments so the units appeared occupied, then wrote up fake apartment leases and records that he submitted to the court, along with an affidavit asserting they were valid.

The scam was exposed by the Faegre lawyers who were given a tour of the apartments and noticed they were largely empty, with no toys to suggest children actually lived there. Working with a tenant advocacy group, Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (United Renters for Justice), the tenants’ lawyers outlined the fraud in court; Frenz was forced to withdraw his affidavit and his two attorneys from Fredrikson & Byron resigned.

The tenants ultimately won the case, and Hutchison referred the suspected perjury to Minneapolis police.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced charges against Frenz in January. Because of Hutchison’s role, Awsumb, a Ramsey County district judge, presided over the case to avoid any conflict of interest.

At the trial, defense attorneys argued that the affidavit Frenz submitted supporting the fake documents did not break the law because the notary did not require Frenz to take an oath. Prosecutors said it was a sworn statement nonetheless. The jury concurred.

At the sentencing hearing on Friday, Hennepin County prosecutor Susan Crumb introduced Jennifer Arnold, co-director of United Renters, to give an impact statement. Sicoli objected that Arnold and her organization were not victims, but he was overruled.

“Tenants had tried so many ways to get things repaired,” Arnold said. She said they were afraid that if they spoke up they would be evicted.

Sicoli argued for no jail time, saying Frenz has “been through a lot,” but Crumb said the penalty was justified because of the nature of the perjury. “It was deliberate, it was planned, it was an intentional act of deception,” she said.

Awsumb said he had received letters about Frenz, including one from a bishop, praising his character. “You are hardworking, generous and caring,” Awsumb said, looking at Frenz. He added, “You have endured substantial public humiliation,” but he noted the perjury had been proven and his crime must have consequences.

Only a handful of properties remain in Frenz’s possession, including five buildings in the Corcoran neighborhood. Frenz has been trying to evict tenants while they have been trying to buy the properties to convert them into owner-occupied cooperatives.

After the hearing, Chloe Jackson, a tenant of Frenz’s in one of the Corcoran buildings, said, “I think it’s unfair that me and my neighbors are facing eviction while he is in criminal court.”

Jackson, a board member of United Renters, said an eviction trial is scheduled for early February. About 40 families — a total of about 100 residents — could lose their housing.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Jason Hutchison, a former housing court referee.