Feds Indict Minneapolis City Councilman & Union Boss

Stolen union money paid for plumbing work at property owned by Minneapolis City Councilman Joe Biernat (DFL), according to federal charges against Biernat, a boss of United Ass’n of Plumbers & Pipe Fitters Local 15 in Minneapolis, and the boss’ brother. The indictments unsealed Apr. 18 allege that in 1999, Thomas J. Martin, ex-Local 15 business agent used $2,700 in union funds to pay for Biernat’s plumbing work at the same time the council member and his colleagues were approving Martin’s appointment to the city board that licenses plumbers. The specific charge is conspiracy to extort under color of official right in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951 (Hobbs Act). Biernat also was charged with making a false statement to the FBI, aiding and abetting union embezzlement, and mail fraud.

Allegedly, Martin arranged for a plumbing estimate at Biernat’s property on Mar. 17, 1999. The same day, Biernat chaired a council committee meeting that approved Martin’s appointment to the Minneapolis Plumbers Examining Bd. Nine days later, Biernat voted in favor of the appointment at a council meeting. Four days after that, Martin arranged for additional plumbing work to be done at Biernat’s house. On May 19, 1999, Martin arranged for the $2,700 from Local 15 to pay for the work. Once on the licensing board, Martin would be in a position to directly influence who would be able to work as a plumber in Minneapolis. Three city officials and two plumbers sit on the board, which examines qualifications of applicants for certificates.

Martin was indicted on charges of conspiracy to extort, mail fraud, and three counts of union embezzlement. The criminal complaint alleges that he took a total of about $17,700, spending the money for plumbing work at Biernat’s house and at the homes of his relatives. He was ousted in Mar. 2002, shortly after the FBI seized documents at the local’s office. His brother, Joseph W. Martin, was also indicted on a charge of aiding in the theft of some $9,000 for work at his home. Gerald Yost, Joseph Martin’s attorney, said that they had negotiated with federal prosecutors for weeks but that talks failed in mid-Apr. The indictments resulted from Dep’t of Labor audit of the local.

The Martin brothers were arrested on Apr. 18 and released on unsecured bonds. Biernat, a councilman since 1993 and up for reelection in 2005, was not arrested. Instead, Biernat attended the City Council meeting as usual on Apr. 19, speaking in favor of an affordable-housing project. Afterward, he declined to answer questions about the indictment but said he felt good about the support he had received from colleagues and friends. He reportedly has no plans to leave the council. “I’m here to do my job. I’m passionate about the work I do,” he said. Hours later, he stood quietly in federal court, where U.S. Magis. Judge J. Earl Cudd (D. Minn.) entered his pleas of not guilty. Biernat was released on a $25,000 personal recognizance bond, which means he would pay only if he failed to appear in court or violated standard conditions of release.  Biernat is scheduled to appear in court next on May 15 for a hearing on motions that either his attorney or the government may file in the next two and a half weeks. A trial date is set for July 1.

Biernat is the second City Council member to face corruption charges in recent years. Ex-City Council Member Brian Herron (DFL) resigned in 2001 after admitting to taking money from a grocer in exchange for the promise of regulatory help. Herron is serving a one-year sentence in federal prison in Duluth. After Herron’s plea, the city attorney brought in Chicago attorney Joe Duffy to conduct an independent look into city regulatory services. In Feb. 2002, Duffy concluded his report, saying the corruption was limited to Herron.

Responding to media questions, U.S. Atty. Tom Heffelfinger said that, if in the wake of Herron’s conviction, Biernat is also convicted, “that does require, I think, the city to look carefully at the conduct of its own elected officials.” However, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, called Biernat’s indictment an accusation, said he is not planning an immediate city investigation. [Star Trib. (Minneapolis) 4/19, 4/20/02]