Anoka’s father-son law firm Berglund & Berglund has a long personal history with several members of the Blaine City Council and their families. It has defended them in drunken-driving cases, represented them in civil cases, provided business advice and served as campaign treasurer and donor.
Now a divided council has awarded the firm the city’s $818,000 three-year prosecutor’s contract.
Mayor Tom Ryan objected, saying the agreement looks “dirty,” but he was overruled by a 5-2 vote on June 4.
“People think politics are dirty, and they are right,” Ryan said. “It’s an ethics thing and a perception thing.”
The Berglund firm replaces Sweeney, Murphy & Sweeney of St. Paul, which had served as the city’s prosecutor for 42 years. The Berglunds’ bid came in about $6,000 less per year than the Sweeney firm’s.
Attorney Mark Berglund said there is nothing illegal or untoward about his firm being chosen. “We submitted a proposal that was the low bid,” he said. “ None of the council members personally benefit from awarding us the contract, and they are confident in us because they’ve had experience with us.”
Berglund said his firm would hire another law firm for any future criminal investigation involving council members or their families. “We would not risk our license for something like that,” he said.
Council Member Dave Clark, the other “no” vote, said he’s found nine criminal and civil court cases where the Berglunds represented either a council member or one of their family members. “It’s not illegal, but it stinks,” said Clark, who returned campaign donations from the Berglunds.
Council members who voted for the Berglunds’ firm argue that the father-son team of John and Mark Berglund came in with the lowest bid and was the only Anoka County firm among the five finalists.
“There were at the very beginning close to nine different firms that submitted bids,” said Council Member Wes Hovland. “They were the lowest bid, first and foremost. That put them up on the radar right away. … I know the quality of their work and their integrity. That is the plus side of it.”
Hovland said he disclosed at a public City Council workshop that he’d had personal dealings with the Berglunds, but didn’t go into specifics. “Quite frankly, I am a public servant, but there are still some things you would prefer not to openly discuss,” he said.
Hovland said he didn’t recuse himself from the vote because he has no pending business with the firm.
However, records show Mark Berglund filed Hovland’s campaign disclosure on Oct. 24, 2014 — the same day his firm submitted its proposal to be city attorney. Now that the Berglunds will be the city’s prosecutors, those personal dealings are over, Hovland said.
Mayor Ryan said the $500-a-month in cost savings is not worth the potential taint. He said he fears the council majority is really motivated by “anything to take care of your own friend.”
“If you explain this to residents, they are irate,” he said.
According to court and campaign records, the Berglunds’ firm:
• Defended Wes Hovland in a 2004 drunken-driving case, which was pleaded down to a careless-driving offense.
• Represented Hovland in two civil guardianship cases in 2004 involving his parents.
• Defended Hovland’s adult son in a June 2013 Blaine drunken-driving case.
• Defended Council Member Russ Herbst’s adult son in two drunken-driving cases in 2007 and 2012 and handled a related civil case where the truck the defendant was driving was seized.
• Has done extensive work for Herbst’s family business, Central Sandblasting Co. of New Brighton, which wrote an endorsement on the law firm’s website: “We at Central have been continually satisfied with how Berglund & Berglund Ltd. prioritizes our business needs as well as personal concerns in their representation of our business and in the fielding of our business-related questions.”
• Served as treasurer for Hovland’s 2014 re-election campaign and City Council Member Mike Bourke’s 2012 campaign. The law firm filed required financial disclosures for both candidates.
• Donated money or services to Hovland’s, Bourke’s and Council Member Jason King’s campaigns.
Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, called the deal “highly unusual and very suspect.”
“I see some conflicts here,” he said. “The problem is, the magnitude of the interconnections is extensive. There is no evidence of wrongdoing or corruption, but we are looking at appearances and the possibility of wrongdoing given the web of relationship. Is this a risk the city should take?
“This law firm has spent an awful lot of time and effort defending the individual interests of these council members,” he said. “That doesn’t translate as good service to the city as a whole.”
Herbst did not return calls for comment, but before the vote, he and others stressed the cost savings and the importance of making law firms compete for the contract. The Sweeney firm had handled Blaine’s legal work since 1965, and the city didn’t ask for other legal-work bids until 2009, when Sweeney won a five-year contract starting in 2010. The Berglund firm had also sought that one.
The Berglunds “have done work for me in the past. I have known them,” Herbst said. “They are a good firm. They are not doing work for me now, nor will I have them do any work for me in the city as long they are city attorney.”
Council Member King acknowledged some campaign assistance from the Berglunds, but said he didn’t know the details of the other council members’ involvement, including the drunken-driving cases.
“The reason I voted for them was they were the lowest qualified bidder,” King said. “For me, it wouldn’t change my decision. It was a little surprising not everything was disclosed. I wish it would have been.”