Wednesday, August 16, 2006

DZ Trial - City Pages

by Paul Demko
August 16, 2006

Perhaps Dean Zimmermann should consider a career in standup comedy.

The former Minneapolis City Council member put on a pretty good show prior to the announcement of the verdict in his trial on federal corruption charges last week. He lamented that his attempt to connect with jurors by pointing out that he'd played high school football for the same North Dakota team that later fielded Minnesota Vikings tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser had fallen flat. He queried reporters as to whether anyone was taking bets on the outcome of the trial. The Green Party activist even theorized that he had to drink water out of an environmentally unfriendly Styrofoam cup throughout the trial out of fear that he might attack the prosecutor with anything more potentially lethal.

But the verdict that was announced just moments later was no laughing matter. A 12-member jury found Zimmermann guilty on three counts of bribery. He faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count—although the actual sentence will likely be considerably less severe. (The former City Council member was acquitted on a fourth charge—that he illegally solicited a retaining wall from a nonprofit developer.)

The case against the frumpy, bicycle-riding politician, who was narrowly voted out of office last November after being indicted, was quite simple. The U.S. Attorney's office alleged that he took $7,200 in bribes from developer Gary Carlson in return for help on zoning issues. Undoubtedly the most damning evidence was a videotape that showed Zimmermann nonchalantly shoving $5,000 of FBI-supplied dough into his pocket while he and Carlson dined on chicken wings and rum and cokes at an Ecuadorian restaurant on the West Bank.

If you believe the government, Zimmermann utilized his Sixth Ward City Council post to prey on developers for his personal enrichment, demanding bribes in return for his support of projects. "The defendant has sold his office," prosecutor John Docherty told the jury in his closing argument.

If you believe Zimmermann, he was brought down by a massive conspiracy orchestrated by a government that feels threatened by his uncompromising radical beliefs. "I'm not the first activist that this government or any government has come after," Zimmermann told reporters after the verdict, invoking the names of Nelson Mandela, Leonard Peltier, and Martin Luther King Jr. "I don't think it's any accident that they singled me out as someone they wanted to shut up."

The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in between and is a great deal more mundane. What the trial revealed was a politician whose chaotic personal finances compromised his ability to fulfill the duties of his job and left him vulnerable to enticements of cash. Zimmermann testified that by the end of last year he had accumulated roughly $35,000 in credit card debt—equal to more than half his City Council salary—and routinely shuffled these bills around to competing finance companies. He may not have consciously attempted to solicit a bribe, but when the money fell into his lap he apparently was more than happy to utilize it for personal ends.

It may even be true, as Zimmermann insisted throughout, that all of the money would have eventually been deposited in the appropriate bank accounts. But even if that's the case, he's still guilty of utilizing accounting practices that wouldn't be acceptable for a church bake sale, let alone a City Council campaign. Whatever one makes of Zimmermann's politics, Minneapolis taxpayers should be relieved that he's no longer minding the city till.

That said, there may be something to the notion that Zimmermann was set up. Not so much by the government, as he would grandly like to believe, but by Carlson. As the story unfolded at trial, the developer seemingly went about his self-appointed task of luring Zimmermann into the scheme with all the ardor of a late-night TV diet guru, practically begging the City Council member to accept his money. "If Dean was a corrupt official who was out looking for bribes," Zimmermann's attorney, Dan Scott, wondered during his closing argument, "then why was it always Carlson who was the aggressor?" Aside from that, Carlson's braggadocio over purportedly raising $28,000 for Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman was sufficient to cast Zimmermann in a sympathetic light.

Zimmermann also makes a valid point in arguing that he wasn't truly tried by a jury of his peers. Because the case was brought in federal court, the jury was tapped from throughout the state. "There was nobody on there from Minneapolis," Zimmermann noted after the verdict. "No person of color. Most of the people in my ward are people of color."

But in the end, it comes down to this: Zimmermann took the money. He accepted $7,200 in illegal, campaign-related contributions from a developer and spent the money like it had been dispensed from an ATM machine.

Jenny Heiser seemed to take the jury's verdict considerably harder than her husband. She largely declined to speak with reporters afterward, saying simply that Zimmermann remained her "hero." But riding the elevator down from the 13th floor of the federal courthouse across the street from Minneapolis City Hall, she blamed his actions on the rigors of holding public office and simultaneously running a campaign. "He was not himself that whole summer," Heiser noted. "He was exhausted. He was running on three or four hours of sleep a night. Chronic sleep deprivation."

Zimmermann will undoubtedly have plenty of time to sleep in prison. It's not clear if he will appeal his conviction, but the veteran Green Party activist already seemed resigned to his fate. "Life goes on," he mused moments after the verdict was read, wearing the same tattered tweed jacket and baggy black pants that he'd sported throughout the two-week trial. "I guess I'll go home and finish my jigsaw puzzle."

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