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Minneapolis councilman convicted on five fraud charges
A federal jury Thursday convicted Minneapolis City Council Member Joe Biernat of five felony charges related to allegations he received free plumbing work in exchange for a vote. Each felony carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Federal prosecutors say it's likely Biernat will face jail time.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Biernat faced a total of seven felony charges. He was found not guilty on two counts: extortion and conspiracy to extort, which carried the heaviest penalties. But the jury found him guilty of making false statements, of aiding and abetting theft from a labor union, and of three mail fraud charges. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Larsen prosecuted the case against Biernat. He said he's not disappointed that the jury didn't find Biernat guilty of all charges.

"I've been at this long enough to know the jury's result is what justice is going to be in the case. Whether that means convictions on all counts or convictions on no counts. We trust the jury system, and we have full faith in it and that's what justice is and that's what I'm satisfied with."

The false statement count is based on an encounter between Biernat and an FBI agent who was investigating the Brian Herron corruption case in August 2001. The agent asked Biernat if he had ever received any free home improvements at any property he owns. Biernat said no, when in fact he had received free plumbing on a rental property in 1999. The $2,700 dollars used to pay for the kitchen job was allegedly stolen by a former union official, Thomas Martin - which is the basis for the theft from a labor union conviction. The mail fraud charges stem from the paperwork and parts for the kitchen work that were sent through the mail. Biernat's attorney Jan Symchych said she will seek an appeal.

"On the remaining counts, we think that the same legal errors existed that did before the case started. And that there's some potential inconsistencies in the verdict that we're going to be evaluating. So we will proceed with an appeal."

Before the trial started, Symchych had tried to keep two signed confessions by Biernat out of the case. Biernat signed the statements after lengthy interrogations by FBI agents in March of this year. Symchych tried to prove that the statements were invalid because she said the agents bullied Biernat into signing them. She said the FBI's main objective was to get Biernat to admit to voting to put Thomas Martin on the plumber's examining board in exchange for the free work. Symchych said the acquittals on the extortion charges show the jury wasn't swayed by the signed statements.

"So the jury obviously accepted the conclusion that Joe Biernat never admitted to a quid pro quo or an act of corruption in his office. And I think that's the lion's share of what's important. He was acquitted on those issues."

However, the statements did contain admissions by Biernat that he knew it was illegal to accept free plumbing work from the union. Minneapolis attorney Clinton Collins said any appeal effort should involve getting as much as the evidence used against Biernat thrown out -- especially the statements.

"You would certainly want to appeal that because without the statements - much of the government's case evaporates."

Biernat still faces a separate trial for a related mail fraud charge which involves the filing and mailing of his 1999 tax return. The government will also begin its case against Thomas Martin in December. Prosecutors say they don't expect Biernat to be sentenced until after those two cases are finished.

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