Six members of a Twin Cities gang strike force went to Hawaii last month for a six-day conference that cost nearly $17,000, an expense their new commander called "ridiculous."

Chris Omodt, a Hennepin County sheriff's captain, said he learned about the $16,800 tab shortly after becoming the Metro Gang Strike Force commander Jan. 20.

"My initial reaction was that, because of the economic times, nobody should be going," Omodt said. "Six people going to Hawaii is ridiculous."

The strike force had already paid for the registrations and air fare by the time the advisory board that oversees the gang unit first examined the matter at its March 18 meeting.

Bud Shaver, chairman of the strike force's advisory board and the West St. Paul police chief, said in an interview that the board approved the trip "despite how it may look" because it would provide training and many of the expenditures had already been made and were non-refundable.

Some investigators registered as early as May 2008, he said, and the same conference next year will be in St. Paul, so it was important to "learn how to put on a successful event." He said that in light of the current "fiscal crisis that we're in right now," the board might have decided not to approve the trip or "find a different way." But he said that since the decision to go was made in May 2008 and "rather than throw away the money, we decided to go and make the best of it."

During its March 18 meeting, Shaver acknowledged that the trip could raise red flags. "It is kind of awkward," he is heard telling board members on a recording from the meeting. "I feel like I'm trying to explain my bonuses to my AIG people."

Four days later, the investigators, some traveling with their families, flew to the International Conference on Asian Organized Crime and Terrorism. The meeting was held March 22-27 at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel in Honolulu.

The investigators paid their family members' air fares from their own pockets.

The trip was paid for with forfeited money seized by the strike force -- which combats gang and drug crime throughout the metro area -- and granted to it by the courts, said Ron Ryan, the former commander, who retired in October. He said he approved sending at least five of the six attendees.

Ryan said the conference allowed the investigators to meet counterparts, collaboration that can help solve serious crimes.

Ryan said it angers him "to no end that these nitwits will attack the fine work that these officers are now doing." He declined to say who he was calling nitwits.

State official critical

The board's bylaws require that it approve any expenditure of forfeiture funds over $5,000 per month. Ryan said the expenses he approved for the conference each month, like registration fees, were considerably less than $5,000.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion is questioning the need to send so many delegates on the trip.

"The commissioner feels sending six people to Hawaii in these economic times, irrespective of the source of the funding, is of concern," said Andy Skoogman, Campion's spokesman.

"It's absurd for the previous commander to think he could send a half dozen people to Hawaii for one week for less than $5,000," Skoogman said. "How did he propose the officers get there? Swim? We don't believe proper protocols were followed."

Omodt said he first learned at the March 18 board meeting that the St. Paul police would host next year's gang conference.

That produced sharp questions by Cari Gerlicher, a non-voting board member and director of the office of special investigations for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. If St. Paul is the host agency, she asked, "why is the strike force sending six people?"

St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington said in an interview that his department sent one person, Richard Straka, lead sergeant for Asian gang crime, to the Hawaii conference. He said the St. Paul Convention and Visitors Bureau paid Straka's way, and he returned with stacks of materials, useful for next year's conference.

Paul Meskan, one of the six investigators who took the trip, said the six attendees will play a role in planning the St. Paul conference.

Meskan said strike force investigators are allowed to attend one training program annually and three attendees, including himself, did not attend one in 2008, so they could go to Hawaii. He said two investigators shared a room, and at least two others, including himself, split the cost of the rooms with the strike force because spouses accompanied them.

Omodt said he asked those with spouses to split room costs. Each room ran $1,295 for six days.

Airfares OK'd in February

Omodt said he learned in mid-February that his second-in-command, Minneapolis police Lt. Jim Heimerl, approved the air fares Feb. 6, which averaged more than $1,000 each. In an e-mail to Heimerl, provided to the Star Tribune by the Public Safety Department, Omodt said he'd previously told Heimerl that the trip was "not a good idea especially considering the financial crisis" and should be re-evaluated. "I was quite upset today after finding out that forfeited monies were released to pay for the conference," he wrote.

Heimerl could not be reached for comment.

In an interview, Harrington said that because the strike force had three commanders recently -- Ryan, Heimerl and Omodt -- the trip might have "slipped through the cracks."

A document reviewed by the board said the six strike force members sent to Hawaii were John McManus and Tim Pinoniemi of the St. Paul police, Meskan and Jon Hankens of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department, Alesia Metry of the Maplewood police and Tim Noll of the Lino Lakes police. Only Meskan could be reached for comment.

The state legislative auditor's office is doing an audit of the strike force, but has yet to issue a report. The strike force has more than 30 members.

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382