International law firm quietly becomes key player in Minneapolis police reform effort

By: - November 24, 2021 7:23 am

The Minneapolis City Hall clock tower covered in snow in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

An international law firm based in Ohio is playing an increasingly large role in how the city of Minneapolis handles a variety of controversial police issues, from investigating police misconduct to representing the city as its police force is investigated by state and federal officials.

What started out as free work representing the city in negotiations with the police union has expanded to a contract worth up to $1 million.

The firm, Jones Day, is closely connected to Republican party politics, employing numerous former Trump administration lawyers, including former White House counsel Don McGahn. The firm, the fifth largest law firm in the country, also represented the Pennsylvania GOP in challenging an extension to the deadline to return mailed ballots in 2020, and has earned more than $20 million from Trump-affiliated groups since 2015, according to Fortune.

The work for Minneapolis was arranged in part by a partner based in Minneapolis, Andrew Luger, who served as U.S. attorney for Minnesota under President Barack Obama, and was recently nominated to the post again by President Joe Biden.

The firm’s partnership with a progressive city like Minneapolis seems odd to Paul Ostrow, a prosecutor and former Minneapolis City Council president. He said it’s “remarkable” that the city is paying a million dollars — at hourly rates of $300 to $1,000 per hour — to a Trump-connected law firm.

“To me it’s exorbitant, it’s not transparent and it seems to have the potential for significant conflicts of interest,” he said. Financial Times says the firm is “notoriously secretive,” especially about what it pays its lawyers.

After Jones Day approached the city offering to help with police reform, the Minneapolis City Council signed off on the arrangement in December, with four council members opposing the pro bono help.

Council Member Steve Fletcher reluctantly voted “no,”  saying it didn’t feel right to work with a firm that was involved in litigating election results — even though he said any law firms that have the resources to offer such free help will have worked for clients he might not agree with.

“There should be reputational consequences for participating in that kind of action,” he said.

The firm agreed to help negotiate with the police union, draft police reform legislation, represent the city on cases where employees are seeking to retire early due to physical or mental disabilities, and advise the city on alternative public safety models, among other things.

City Attorney Jim Rowader said in December the firm would help his “thinly resourced” office, which was dealing with skyrocketing litigation and increasing police grievances and arbitration proceedings.

A team of 20 Jones Day attorneys began working for free for the city in February. In March, the firm’s work was expanded to help the city respond to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department.

In April, their work was expanded to include representing the city on disability retirements involving 15 current and former police officers, city documents show.

On July 2, the council unanimously approved extending Jones Day’s work for up to $500,000 this year and $500,000 next, with an extension of up to four years, for representation relating to the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the police department. By then, Jones Day said, it had provided more than $1 million in free work to the city in about five months.

In August, the firm’s pro bono work grew to include investigating some police misconduct complaints in coordination with the city’s Office of Police Conduct Review, which investigates police misconduct complaints. A letter to the city from Luger cited a “backlog of existing complaints of alleged police misconduct and the limited resources of the OPCR to investigate them.”

A city spokeswoman said the Minnesota Department of Human Rights encouraged city officials to use Jones Day not only to help reduce the OPCR backlog, but to “provide overall benefit to the MDHR’s work.” The office was deluged with police complaints after George Floyd’s police killing, jumping from an average of 288 complaints per year since 2013 to 435 in 2020.

Rebecca Lucero, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, said she encouraged the city to get the help of a law firm to help respond to her office’s large discovery requests, but denies encouraging city officials to use Jones Day to help reduce the OPCR backlog.

“The city needed the support of outside counsel for this size of an investigation,” she said. “And it is typical for cities to work with outside counsel for pattern and practice race discrimination cases.”

Abigail Cerra, chair of Minneapolis’ Police Conduct Oversight Commission, said she supported Jones Day’s free assistance on the police labor contract, but now the firm is “basically taking over the role of OPCR and PCOC for a million dollars.”

“They have options besides engaging Jones Day,” she said. “This creates very significant conflicts of interest.”

The City Council directed Jones Day to work with her commission, and she met with Jones Day lawyers for the first time in mid-November. Cerra said she raised the issue of conflicts of interest, and said a Jones Day attorney agreed that it could present a conflict, but she said different attorneys are handling different work, with a “firewall between them.” That attorney did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did three other Jones Day attorneys.

She also asked about negotiations with the police union, and was told “there hasn’t been any movement in months.” The union’s labor contract expired in 2019.

Asked for an update on labor negotiations, city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said, “The city and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis continue to work toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement utilizing mediation services.”

The vice chair of the PCOC, Jordan Sparks, said the scope of Jones Day’s work is wider than he anticipated. Cerra said she would like the city to consider staffing the OPCR rather than contract the work out to a private firm.

Ostrow questions why the city needs to hire an outside firm at all, especially when the mayor has said he welcomes the state and federal investigations.

“Their involvement in every piece of this is troubling,” he said, and a firewall between employees is “not good enough.”

Some of the work could have been done by a local public policy research group instead of lawyers, he said. And he’s concerned that attorney-client privilege could be invoked to keep some of the work private.

“The overuse of the attorney-client privilege to hide information from the public is a real disservice,” he said.

Ostrow is a board member of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, which is suing Minneapolis, alleging the police department intentionally uses “coaching” for serious misconduct instead of disciplining them to keep the records private. Under state law, disciplinary records of police officers are public but the city does not consider coaching to be discipline.

“Had this happened when I was on the City Council, it frankly would’ve been a huge fight,” he said.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

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