Mpls. City Councilor Samuels: Justice Dept. probed non-profit ties

Don Samuels
Then-mayoral candidate Don Samuels in November 2013.
Amanda Snyder / MPR News File

Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels said the U.S. Justice Department investigated his ties to a non-profit group headed by his wife.

FBI agents, Samuels said Tuesday, interviewed him for several hours in January, asking him if he used his influence as a council member to secure city funds for the Peace Foundation.

The U.S. Justice Department dropped the investigation shortly after the interview, he added.

The Peace Foundation was formed in 2004 and is now part of the Northside Achievement Zone. Both focus on improving conditions in north Minneapolis, an area of the city Samuels represents as a council member.

At the time of the investigation, Samuels was a candidate for mayor. He said he assumed the inquiry was an attempt by his political rivals to sabotage his campaign.

Samuels hired an attorney, which cost him about $9,000. The city attorney's office has recommended the Council reimburse Samuels for that cost.

"There is no evidence that council member Samuels acted other than in good faith as evidenced by the investigation being closed with no action taken," deputy city attorney Peter Ginder wrote in a request to reimburse Samuels that was submitted to the Council's ways and means budget committee.

While the hourly rate of $460 charged by Samuels' attorney, former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger, is higher than the standard hourly rates normally approved by the city, there is precedent Ginder said and denying reimbursement "could have a negative impact on the morale of other officers or employees."

The city council will vote on the request later this week.

Heffelfinger said he was with Samuels during his interview with the FBI. He said the interview was "professional" and not adversarial. Heffelfinger said he got the impression the questions agents asked were not based on specific allegations. However, he said the Justice Department takes any allegation of public corruption seriously.

"They were looking at that to see whether or not there was evidence of actionable conflict of interest or something of that nature."

Samuels was a former board member of the Peace Foundation, but severed his ties with the group long ago, Heffelfinger said. One of Samuels' political rivals may have initiated the investigation, he added.