Saturday, December 22, 2007

Part III: Another interesting Startribune article

Check out Part I and Part II of the series in previous posts, as well as a post supporting Part II.

The past few days, I have been posting from the archives of the Startribune, in a direct response to some who have questioned the role of bloggers while using a recent Startribune story to make their candidate look good.

The bloggers I work with, Bluestem Prairie, I Don't Hate America, Dump Bachmann, Liberal in the Land of Conservative, MnBlue, Beyond Sound bites and Head lines and others, put a great deal of effort into their work. The amount of diligence that my colleagues place on getting a story right and providing perspectives that miss the mainstream media outlets is invaluable.

Anyway, thanks everyone...and now back to the story.

The January 21, 2003 Startibune published a story titled "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."

What's the saying about the worst part of a scandal? Something about the cover-up right? Recall yesterday's account of the $32 million LRT contract, for a $20 million job, that eventually was accomplished through a $15.4 million bid.

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.

Destroying public documents? I thought it was bad enough that government paper shredding has increased 600 fold since the Bush Administration took office. Needless to say, these actions are not consistent with strong moral leaders.

So while a Federal Judge handed down a decision to ensure a competitive bid process, MnDOT leaders worked feverishly behind the scenes to get a specific firm, the contract they wanted.

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.

So...either Mr Tinklenberg (who also resigned in October 2002) was completely oblivious to the fraudulent activities within his office or he allowed this to happen. Either way, the amount of waste, fraud and abuse at the upper echelons of MnDOT is disturbing.

MnDOT leaders supported plans to suppress protesters upset about the LRT and Highway 55, specifically how it could disturb American Indian places of honor.

MnDOT leaders also tried to slow information flow from the agency by coming up with a "Speaking with one voice" initiative. Leaders across the state balked at the idea, citing examples that they had communicated well with local leaders for decades.

The protest was merited. Sending someone from the Twin Cities to quell a transportation issue in Bovy, or other small Minnesota towns seems odd.

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."

So Tinklenberg, in light of numerous problems at MnDOT, supported, in essence, a gag order.


Would it surprise you that some of Tinklenberg's subordinates at MnDOT had concerns over some of his relationships?

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."

While that may be true, why would the MnDOT spokeswoman halt someone (a Senior MnDOT engineer) from trying to say Tinklenberg had not given any special consideration?

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