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Herron's guilty plea doesn't end extortion probe in Minneapolis
By Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
July 19, 2001

Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton has appointed an internal work group to review the city's regulatory services department. The announcement came the day after city councilmember Brian Herron admitted to extorting money from a business owner having problems with the city's inspection department. The city review will proceed even as federal authorities investigate the matter.

Herron resigned late Tuesday after admitting to extorting $10,000 from a south Minneapolis business owner. Herron also admitted to taking $2,000 from two other businesses.

According to U.S. Attorney Robert Small, Herron has been using his influence as an elected official to pressure Selwin Ortega, who owns several grocery stores, to give him money since 1996. It's alleged that inspections of Ortega's businesses intensified after he refused Herron's demand to transfer some of his property to an associate of Herron's. Federal prosecutors also say Herron promised to get the inpectors to take it easy on Ortega in exchange for the $10,000.

Even though Herron pleaded guilty, Small says the investigation is continuing. He hasn't been specific about the scope of the investigation, but Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton wants to assure residents the city is taking the situation seriously.

"The people of the city of Minneapolis deserve and expect an honest government. And I want to ensure the citizens of our community that we do have an honest government," she told a news conference Wednesday.

The five-member workgroup consists of city employees who know the system well. Two of the workgroup members head the city's inspection and licensing department. The mayor says work will begin immediatetly "The charge to this group is to review and evaluate city records to ensure that established priorities and procedures have been applied fairly and consistently," she said.

The fallout from Herron's admissions go much further than the city's inspections department. His resignation came less than an hour before the candidate filing deadline for this fall's City Council election. Hennepin County Commissioner and independent mayoral candidate Mark Stenglein accuses DFLers of orchestrating the situation for their advantage.

"It just seems too coincidental that all of sudden filings close and yet in the final minutes an assistant of the councilmember files for office," he said.

Stenglein is referring to Herron aide Vickie Ann Brock. At the urging of DFLers, including council president Jackie Cherryhomes, Brock filed to run for Herron's seat just minutes before the filing deadline. Cherryhomes says there was nothing inappropriate about encouraging Brock to run for office, because she says she did so months before Herron's resignation.

"I had spoken to Miss Brock about running for this position when councilmember Herron was determining whether or not he was going to run for office again in the first place. And so I did not find that an unusual activity because we had discussed this issue, prior to, months prior to the filing even opening," according to Cherryhomes.

That doesn't satisfy Mark Stenglein, who is calling for the Hennepin County attorney's office to investigate both the city's regulatory services and the timing of Herron's resignation. However, an official with the county attorney's office says Stenglein's request will be referred to the federal investigators.

The City Council won't fill Herron's seat before the election. Constituents can still contact the eighth ward office where Herron's staff will be available to help them. However, the eighth ward will have no vote on the council until a new councilmember is sworn into office in January. There are four candidates for the eighth ward seat, including Herron's aide.