Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) January 21, 2003, Tuesday, Metro Edition
INSIDE MnDOT; MnDOT has worked hard to spin its image; It kept a tight grip on public information and a close eye on its adversaries. One top official suggested deleting records.
Pat Doyle; Dan Browning; Staff Writers
When ethical concerns threatened federal light-rail funding a few years ago, the Minnesota Department of Transportation swung into high gear.
Publicly, the department pledged to correct an apparent conflict of interest involving a $32 million contract.
Behind the scenes, a top MnDOT official contemplated another strategy: a campaign that included shifting blame, criticizing federal authorities and destroying public documents on the matter.
Besides building highways, the department has devoted much effort toward plotting or executing ways to protect itself from critics, shape public opinion on controversial projects and keep some of its activities hidden. E-mail correspondence and other internal documents examined by the Star Tribune offer an inside look.
Shannon Beaudin Klein, until recently MnDOT's public-relations director, said the agency worked hard to provide complete and accurate information to the public. She said that some of the ideas it considered ultimately were rejected as inappropriate.
The light-rail dispute surfaced in 2000, after the Federal Transit Administration said it would not fund the project unless MnDOT sought new bids for a project-management contract. It said that the New York firm Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas had been in a position to use inside information to win the job.
In August of that year, a judge refused to block the Transit Administration's decision. Within days, MnDOT Chief of Staff Margo LaBau discussed strategy with Parsons Brinckerhoff.
In a summary of the discussion, David Warner, a Parsons Brinckerhoff executive, wrote that LaBau had wondered whether the company "could somehow cause" a locally prominent person to write a letter to the editor or an opinion article about the decision. The message would be, in effect, that "it's unfortunate that the judge felt compelled to make the decision he did due to the heavy-handed action of a large Federal bureau threatening a local agency with the withdrawal of funding."
Warner added that LaBau hoped Parsons Brinckerhoff would submit a new bid. (It didn't.)
Warner sent LaBau a copy of his summary for her to review. She responded with an e-mail urging caution:
"Dave, Just a few thoughts, anything written down can be discoverable under data privacy act so you might want to delete the part about MnDOT hoping you will participate in a re-bid.
Someone might interpret that as another bizarre basis for 'unfair advantage.' That might be better left for a phone call.
"I would also appreciate it if you would not put in writing about the Opinion Editorial Piece," she wrote, explaining that it could upset the Metropolitan Council, which influences transportation planning in the Twin Cities area. "I am a little out on the limb and MC likes to shake it whenever they are not getting their way."
She added: "I will be deleting your message and the response from my mailbox and my delete file. Nothing like operating with paranoia!"
LaBau's note to Warner was preserved in an agency computer backup.
LaBau, who resigned in October, declined repeated requests for interviews.
Linda Bjornberg, MnDOT's official recordkeeper, said a subordinate who tried to acquire LaBau's e-mails at the request of the Star Tribune last year was upset when she learned that LaBau was routinely deleting them.
"I know people suggest if they don't like something, it should be gotten rid of, they should destroy it," Bjornberg said. "I mean, legally, we can't do that. And I can't in good conscience follow instructions like that."
Warner, in a recent interview, said he didn't know of any instances of a locally prominent person complying with LaBau's request to write a critical opinion piece about the judge's decision. But he said the president of Parsons Brinckerhoff in New York might have prepared an article on the subject about that time.
Agency sought 'research' on Hwy. 55 protesters
The light-rail transit (LRT) project and the related rerouting of Hwy. 55 in south Minneapolis were frequent sources of controversy for MnDOT. And the department tapped a large in-house public-relations team to get its story out.
One of its challenges came from protesters who opposed the rerouting. The project shifted the road closer to Minnehaha Park, requiring the felling of oak trees and causing concern that sites important to American Indians would be disturbed. Dozens of people were arrested in the protests.
Soon after Elwyn Tinklenberg became commissioner in 1999, LaBau brainstormed with Paul Leegard, an acquaintance whom MnDOT later hired, about ways to defuse the protests. He urged her to avoid responses that might give the demonstrators credibility and rally them into a formal organization.
"I would suggest you stop referring to them as a group," he wrote in an August 1999 e-mail.
"Start referring to individuals but not by name but by negative characteristics."
He triggered a quick response.
"Interesting you should say that about the protestors," LaBau replied. "I hired a consultant on Friday to do some 'research' about the protestors and the organizations they represent. I also want to find out who some of the high level environmental and native American people are who would have a vested interest in discrediting this group.
"I know their [sic] out there, I just have to find them!"
A MnDOT memo dated three days later describes a plan to begin "an aggressive public awareness and crisis communication campaign" on the Hwy. 55 project that included initiating a "small contract" with the Bloomington public-relations firm Himle Horner.
MnDOT drafted a $5,000 contract for Himle Horner the next month to "conduct research . . . related to groups interested in the project" and "identify possible third party supporters who might be willing to assume an advocacy role." Under a heading labeled "Background," the agency wrote, "Working with a firm specializing in crisis communication will enhance our ability to minimize distruption [sic] of project and maximize public relations opportunities."
Thomas Horner, a partner in the firm, said in an interview that MnDOT "spoke to us about the challenges they were facing on Hwy. 55. . . . We came in and said . . . your efforts ought to be focused on building an understanding of the value that Hwy. 55 has to the broader community. Don't just make it a [case of] road construction versus opponents of road construction."
MnDOT and Himle Horner say their dealings on Hwy. 55 never went beyond that free advice. "Himle Horner would never be associated with a campaign that has as a goal to discredit others," Horner said. His partner, John Himle, stated: "We never received any contract."
MnDOT documents show that the unsigned contract was abruptly withdrawn after Himle made critical remarks about MnDOT at a public meeting. Judy Melander, then a top public-relations official at the agency, alerted management that Himle's remarks had spurred news coverage that "doesn't read very well for MnDOT and the LRT project."
Within hours, Melander and the supervising engineer for the metro area were discussing whether Himle had a possible conflict of interest because he served on the light-rail management committee and the Metropolitan Airports Commission. In a recent interview, Melander said she hadn't realized that Himle served those roles when she prepared the contract.
Corralling message into 'one voice'
Since fiscal year 2001, the department's public-relations activities have been consolidated in a single office with a budget of about $3 million a year. Before Beaudin Klein left, she was making $50.13 an hour, more than all but a few of MnDOT's top engineers, to direct those efforts.
Some of the $3 million is spent on internal communications and providing information about road closures and similar public-service announcements. Outside of that budget are certain consulting contracts paid through other MnDOT units, such as one for $280,000 with the Minneapolis public-relations firm LaBreche Murray to promote the Northstar bus corridor.
An e-mail that circulated among MnDOT's public-relations employees and others in late 1999, before the consolidation, referred to an "approach to combatting the negative media that the [light-rail] project is receiving."
A few months later, LaBau issued a directive informing subordinates of a policy that put Melander in a commanding role, the beginning of the centralization.
"All inquiries from reporters should be routed through Judy irregardless [sic] of the topic," LaBau wrote. On some of the more sensitive issues, she said, public-relations supervisors might sit in on interviews.
Also about that time, the public-relations department was discussing ways to polish the agency's image. "We are restructuring communications along a public relations/advertising/marketing agency model to better deliver our products and services to our customers throughout the agency and to ensure that we are Speaking With One Voice," wrote Megan Lewis, then a MnDOT employee, who helped develop the plan.
MnDOT staff members spent months discussing whether to change the department logo and other marketing strategies before dropping those plans. And a MnDOT work group identified what it called "natural adversaries" to the agency's use of the Internet to provide transportation information. Those included the Legislature, unspecified state agencies and "some taxpayers who question every state agency expenditure."
Asked about the reference to adversaries before her departure, Beaudin Klein said that MnDOT "considers legislators to be key stakeholders" and that "the tactics in the plan are clearly focused on providing information and making it more easily available" to everyone via the Internet.
Some employees balked at plans for a formal statewide media policy. John Bray, who was a public-affairs director for northeastern Minnesota, tried to explain that knowledgeable employees in his regional offices had been answering questions successfully for the agency for years.
"In other words, we do not have, and would not want to have, a hard and fast rule or bureaucratic maze regarding 'who can talk to the media' and this open forum relationship has well served us for nearly twenty years," he wrote in a memo.
Beaudin Klein responded, calling Bray's comments "unacceptable" and stressing that the new policy was not open to debate.
"This decision was made at the executive level and has the full support of the commissioner," she wrote. "I am seriously disappointed that a communications person is objecting to having a policy in place that will help the agency communicate with one voice."
Bray later wrote Beaudin Klein to pledge his support for the new statewide media policy, which he said mirrored the approach used by his regional office. After a couple of more e-mail exchanges, Mike Robinson, a district engineer, stepped in and said Bray had been misunderstood. "Now, can we kiss and make up?"
More recently, a top public-relations official tried to stop a senior MnDOT engineer, Richard Stehr, from talking publicly about an e-mail he wrote to a subordinate, Tim Henkel.
Henkel had written to Stehr in fall 2001 about concerns that he and his colleagues had regarding Philip Cohen, a lobbyist and former business associate of Tinklenberg's. He noted that Cohen was meeting with the commissioner and feared that he was using his influence to get around the agency's normal procedures and advance improvements to Hwy. 10 in the northwest Twin Cities suburbs.
In an e-mail, Stehr replied that Cohen would "take advantage of his friendship with the Commissioner to secure meetings with the Commissioner to discuss Phil's agenda. We are not going to stop that." He told Henkel "to expect that politics will influence the outcome."
MnDOT declined to make the authors of the e-mail exchange available individually to elaborate on their correspondence. Instead, the agency offered a group interview with a public-relations officer present.
MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender interrupted when a Star Tribune reporter asked Stehr in an interview on another subject whether he cared to comment about the e-mails.
"No, he doesn't," Kender said.
Stehr seemed surprised by the interruption. Kender continued: "Because, Dick, you don't."
Stehr started to respond anyway, and Kender cut him off: "No! Dick, I advise you not to answer that because we've gone around on this several times." She said the agency would reply in writing. Stehr said he didn't mind answering, and Kender finally relented. "I'm the adviser. I can only go that far," she said.
Stehr said that Tinklenberg never asked him to give special consideration to Cohen or anyone else.
In a separate interview, Tinklenberg said: "The proof was in the pudding. . . . [The project] was not changed."
MnDOT was cool to legislators' queries
When it comes to persuasion, MnDOT has been known to play hardball.
Three years ago, MnDOT's Rochester district engineer, Nelrae Succio, met with Dave Bishop, then a Republican state representative from Rochester, to discuss the legislator's hopes for the renovation of Hwy. 52.
Bishop was worried that his opposition to two of Gov. Jesse Ventura's favorite proposals, light rail and a unicameral Legislature, would hurt Hwy. 52's chances, Succio reported in an e-mail to LaBau and MnDOT government-relations director Tim Worke.
"He wanted a guarantee from the Commissioner that Mn/DOT would not allow this to play into our decision-making if funding does become available," Succio wrote.
LaBau responded bluntly. "Bishop needs a Civics lesson, the commissioner reports to the Governor and not the Legislature, he also does not function independantly [sic], he can't guarantee that if Bishop ticks off the Governor that he won't respond by telling El [Tinklenberg] to bury TH 52," she wrote. "Children!"
MnDOT feuded with other legislators, some of whom accused it of withholding public information on light rail.
A memo from MnDOT supervisor Robert Winter to colleagues told of how an aide to Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, was upset because he couldn't get information about the cost of the light-rail project and believed MnDOT was withholding information from legislators.
Krinkie, a leading critic of the Hiawatha light-rail line, had asked MnDOT for information on it under the Minnesota Data Practices Act. The law says that state data are presumed public unless specifically exempt from disclosure and that they must be turned over in a reasonable time after a request.
Krinkie's requests rankled LaBau. "Doesn't this guy have a real job?" she wrote in one e-mail to a colleague.
MnDOT researched statutes in search of justifications for withholding information. As the Legislature debated the merits of light rail, Laurie Steiger, a lawyer in the department, suggested in an e-mail to LaBau that the agency could invoke some provisions of the Data Practices Act to delay release of a preliminary cost-benefit analysis of the project if the analysis somehow could be linked to a new budget proposal.
Steiger also suggested a tactic "to buy time and show a good faith effort" to comply with the Data Practices Act. When someone asked to see the analysis, she wrote, MnDOT could appeal to the Department of Administration for an opinion on whether it was public. (Such opinions generally take one to two months.) Then the agency could also buy time by asking the attorney general for an opinion, she wrote: "Their opinion trumps Administration's opinion."
Steiger also considered more long-shot strategies, such as trying to classify the government information as a trade secret. "This one might be quite a stretch," she conceded.
Asked to comment, Steiger wrote that she has "never encouraged Mn/DOT to suppress public information or delay release" of information "once we know that the classification is clearly public."
Beaudin Klein, who joined MnDOT after the Steiger e-mail, said the agency "responded as promptly in providing information to opponents as [to] supporters."
But MnDOT's new commissioner, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, says the agency hasn't been prompt.
"Even though it's public information, it's never been easy to get the full information," said Molnau, who previously was chairwoman of the House Transportation Finance Committee.
When it came to light rail, she said, "we nearly had to subpoena it."
Third of three parts
- Published Sunday: MnDOT has hired consultants in ways that bend and break the rules.
- Published Monday: For years, the department has battled the state government watchdogs who are supposed to hold it accountable.
- Today's report: A behind-the-scenes look at MnDOT's efforts to deal with controversy and unify its message.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Star Tribune reporters reviewed hundreds of individual constracts and thousands of government documents - including e-mails, memos and other correspondence - provided under the Minnesota Data Practices Act. They also interviewed dozens of public officials, private contractors, lobbyists and others. To comment, contact: