Armed with an order from the chief judge of Hennepin County, a team of forensic experts this week began searching the computers and smartphones of one of the city’s biggest landlords — who is accused of filing fraudulent documents in court.
The four experts from Stroz Friedberg, a national forensic company, began looking for e-mails as well as other data and files on Thursday. The data may determine whether the landlord, Stephen Frenz, committed fraud and whether he had accomplices in an alleged scheme to falsify leasing information to get a tenant lawsuit against him dismissed.
Chief Judge Peter Cahill said in his order, issued late Wednesday, that the allegations by attorneys for a tenants’ group warranted the probe “to determine whether defendants have fabricated documents or otherwise attempted to mislead the Court.”
Frenz is on trial in housing court in a civil lawsuit that claims he operated a substandard apartment building on the 3000 block of 14th Avenue S. in Minneapolis that was infested with cockroaches, bedbugs and mice.
On Wednesday, Michael Cockson, an attorney with the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, which is working for free on behalf of the tenants, alleged he had evidence that Frenz may have filed fake leases of tenants living in three apartments. He said the apartments were actually empty.
Cockson suggested that the purpose of the alleged fraud was to convince a housing referee that the majority of tenants in the apartment building, who are represented by a neighborhood organization, had not signed onto the suit. If that were the case, the referee overseeing the trial would be required under state law to dismiss the lawsuit.
The referee, Jason Hutchison, decided there were enough tenants and has allowed the trial to proceed. A hearing on the case is set for March 29.
On Wednesday, two attorneys from Fredrikson & Byron who were representing Frenz formally withdrew from the case. They also submitted a letter to Hutchison, withdrawing several documents they had filed on behalf of Frenz, including three leases.
In his order, Cahill noted that Frenz had filed an affidavit on March 2 saying 11 units were occupied at the property. The tenants’ attorneys claim that is false.
The tenants’ lawyers say only eight units were occupied, and they claim that Frenz and his companies “apparently fabricated three leases in order to make it appear to the Court and to plaintiff that 11 units were occupied,” Cahill said.
The lawsuit was brought by a legal tenant entity, IX of Powderhorn Park, which has the support of a tenants’ group known as Renters United for Justice. The suit names Frenz and his two companies: the Apartment Shop and Equity Residential Holdings.