Feds Raid Minneapolis Union's Offices; Grand Jury Investigation Ongoing

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Federal agents seized records from the United Ass'n of Plumbers & Pipe Fitters Local 15 in Minneapolis as part of a grand jury investigation into aspects of the plumbing trade, including records about property owned by Minneapolis City Council Member Joe Biernat (DFL). A six-hour search of Local 15's during the week of Mar. 4 also sought records pertaining to matters between the local, the Minneapolis City Council, the city's Licenses and Inspections Department, and its plumbers examining board. The warrant also requested information about four area plumbing companies listed as Ventco Appliance, Norblom Plumbing, Jack Seitz Plumbing, and Fignar Plumbing and their owners.

Four Local 15 bosses/employees have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury on Mar. 19. Other materials sought during the search of union offices included records pertaining to the Plumbing Indus. Advancement Program, Market Recovery Fund, and Minn. Industrywide Joint Labor Mgmt. Committee Inc. The authorities "did not state the reasons for the warrant nor did they indicate the purpose of the grand jury investigation," according to the local's statement. The local  stressed that "pension, welfare and vacation funds are not involved" in the investigation.

Two contractors told the Star Tribune that they had been interviewed by federal agents about "city officials and council members." However, neither said they were told the names of any specific individuals. "I've done work in several elected officials' homes in my 37 years of doing business," Bill Fignar said.

Biernat confirmed that he owns three of four properties specifically cited in the warrant.  He said he had been interviewed by the FBI but wouldn't say when. Biernat added that he had been asked not to discuss the interview. Fignar, he said, had done some work on his home bathroom. Biernat, in his third term, represents parts of north and northeast Minneapolis. He also is the chairman of the City Council's Public Safety & Regulatory Services Committee, which works closely with the police and fire departments and handles regulatory and inspections issues. According to city permit records, Norblom and Fignar took out three permits between 1999 and 2001 to work on two northeast Minneapolis properties owned by Biernat, including his residence.

Fignar would not say whom he has worked for or whom he was asked about. Fignar, however, said he had never worked for former City Council Member Brian Herron (DFL).  Last year, Herron resigned after admitting to taking money from a grocer in exchange for the promise of regulatory help. No allegations in that scandal involved plumbing inspectors or permits. 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. Late last
month, Duffy concluded his report, saying the corruption  was limited to Herron.

Mike Vande Kamp, ex-CFO of one of the firms, said he was interviewed by federal agents in Feb. He declined to give names but said he was asked about council members and city officials. Vande Kamp no longer works for the firm, which he declined to name, although he acknowledged it was a firm mentioned in the warrant.Others identified in the warrant were Jeff Norblom and Jack Seitz.

No Minneapolis council members were specifically mentioned in the search warrant. But city permit records indicate that the Norblom firm took out permits to do work at the home of former Council President Jackie Cherryhomes (DFL) last year, at ex-Council Member Kathy Thurber's (DFL) home in 2000, and at Herron's residence in 1999. All three were on the City Council when the permits were issued. It's not known whether this work is the subject of the investigation.

Thurber, who did not seek reelection last year, said she had not been questioned by the FBI. She didn't recall Norblom's name or the June 2000 repair date, but her husband did. He said the family's water heater broke down and was repaired through their Minnegasco service contract. Robert Thurber said Minnegasco sent Norblom to their home. Cherryhomes said she had a new water heater installed in Aug. 2001 through a similar agreement and didn't realize which plumber had done the work until now. "We contracted through Minnegasco. We called them and they took care of everything," she said. She also said that she was unaware of the investigation and that she hasn't been contacted by the FBI. [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) 3/14/02]