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In a new civil filing, a Minneapolis attorney is asking a Hennepin County judge to appoint a special master to oversee payments from a city office to violence prevention groups in order to ensure taxpayer funds are going through proper accounting practices.

Zachary Coppola, a Minneapolis resident, filed a lawsuit last November alleging the city's Neighborhood Safety department, formerly called the Office of Violence Prevention, used an illegal procurement process to arbitrarily select recipients for millions of dollars using substandard accounting methods.

"If they are going to spend tens of millions of dollars on these programs, they can spend a small amount more to ensure that these contracts are properly procured and properly administered according to basic accounting principles," said Dean Thomson, an attorney representing Coppola. "We are not against alternative violence prevention programs. We're only against their improper administration in which public funds are being spent without any accountability."

In court documents, the city has denied the allegations of improper accounting. The city would not comment on the pending litigation, but in a statement, Minneapolis Commissioner of Community Safety Toddrick Barnette said making sure the Neighborhood Safety department is "sustainable, accountable and expanding its capacity" has been his top priority since being sworn in last year.

"It is a critical part of the Office of Community Safety's mission to provide coordinated, comprehensive, and equitable safety services to all residents and visitors," said Barnette, adding that he is overseeing a restructure of the department, which includes bringing in a director of administration "to assist with ensuring compliance and accountability."

Minneapolis launched Neighborhood Safety in 2018 to address violence through a public health lens. The office currently has a $23 million budget, up from $2.7 million in 2020, and is a key part of the city's strategy to reduce violent crime.

The safety office oversees the Violence Prevention Fund and Gang Violence Initiative — grant programs funded in part by a pandemic stimulus package passed by Congress in 2021. Each program has paid out millions of dollars since 2019 to nonprofit organizations and private contractors aligned with the community safety-driven mission. The final grant recipients are chosen by the commissioner of the Minneapolis Office of Public Safety, the position now held by Barnette.

The lawsuit says the evaluation process is so flawed that it falls short of "the most basic competitive bidding or proposal evaluation process," and is therefore illegal.

The motion filed Tuesday alleges the city violated federal law by making payments through the Gang Violence Initiative to contractors for "personnel wages," though the contractors couldn't provide invoices showing the amount paid was accurate.

In one invoice, attached as an exhibit to the lawsuit, a contractor billed the city for more than $350,000 over two months in personnel wages without listing the names of the employees or specific dates of work performed — identifying them only as "violence interrupter" and a number — and without evidence of actual payment.

"Because the City either intentionally or ineptly failed, and continues to fail, to request proper support from its contractors, and because the City continued, and continues, to pay them without proper support, the Court should appoint a special master to ensure the City properly administers payments under its violence prevention programs before payments are made to contractors," the motion says.

Coppola said he believes in the value of community-based alternatives to traditional policing, but he doesn't think the city has provided sufficient oversight to ensure meaningful impact. "To me this is a key piece of the future," he said in an interview. "Citizens have demanded it, and citizens have the right to know that what they want is actually happening."

Coppola said he became concerned about the city's procurement practices after reading of fraud allegations against Feeding Our Future, a nonprofit facing dozens of federal charges for improperly paying out hundreds of millions of dollars. While still in law school at the University of Minnesota, Coppola filed a series of requests for access to public records. City officials initially denied him records that they claimed weren't public and later "resorted to silence when called out on those misrepresentations," according to the suit. In some cases, the city unilaterally closed his data requests after producing only some of the documentation required under law.

The motion filed this week says the city produced some of this information during the discovery process to Coppola and his lawyers under an agreement for a protective order. But when the lawyers received the documents, none were marked confidential, and the city confirmed the documents are considered public data.

"Those unnecessary actions evidence the extraordinary measures the City has taken to prevent Plaintiff and the public from obtaining public data about its violence prevention programs," said the court motion.