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A year ago, Minneapolis' first attempt to celebrate local Black culture and commerce fell flat, with an expo that ran over budget, became mired in controversy and ultimately led to the ouster of the city's top racial equity official.

A year later, the city has no plans to bring the event back, and its new director of diversity efforts, Prince Corbett, is rebuilding the department with an inward-facing approach, as questions remain about potential improprieties from last year's event.

Corbett, hired in October as the city's new director of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, had no involvement in the planning of last year's expo. But he is well aware of the lingering impact — and uncertainty — left by the event, as he seeks to lead the city's work on a critical issue.

"The city tried to do something," he said, noting that he wanted to offer a "sincere apology" for the harm caused by the failed event. "It didn't go well, and it all played out. To move forward, for the city to have another expo, would be for the community to decide if that should be the city's responsibility because of the harm that's been caused."

Prince Corbett, Minneapolis' new director of Race, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging.
Prince Corbett, Minneapolis' new director of Race, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Expo troubles

Last year's event, titled "I Am My Ancestors' Wildest Dreams Expo," was the brainchild of Tyeastia Green, who would become the center of the controversy surrounding it.

Green had been hired as the city's director of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. In the wake of a racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, Mayor Jacob Frey elevated Green's division to a full-fledged city department.

The Feb. 25, 2023, event was envisioned as the first city-sponsored anchor for Black History Month — one of many for years to come — that would spotlight Minneapolis' tapestry of Black-owned businesses and cultural assets. It was to be a "Black Mecca" event that would also draw national A-list celebrities and thought leaders. Green predicted 20,000 would flock to the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Behind the scenes, some in the city considered scratching the event because it was coming together late and the city attorney's office raised ethics concerns over how Green was soliciting donations. Publicly, the first signs of trouble came several weeks before the expo when Green said publicly — and apparently falsely — in a City Council meeting that the Bush Foundation had offered $3 million to the event but ethics concerns were tripping it up. In fact, the city had never even applied for funding, both the city and the foundation said. Green stood by her statements but offered no evidence.

Ultimately, the event cost the city more than $680,000, well above the $450,000 figure Green stated publicly weeks before the event — though it's unclear if her estimate included more than $100,000 in costs for the Convention Center, a charge that the city essentially pays itself. No actual attendance was taken, but a benchmark of 3,700 advance online registrations was used as a ballpark. Many panned the expo, especially business owners who paid to set up booths in hope of selling products or gaining exposure but said they lost money.

The fallout was swift. Green was out of a job, and the city auditor launched several stages of inquiries into what happened.

Even the facts around Green's departure were contentious. While the city only confirmed her employment ended shortly after the event, she claimed she had attempted to resign before it, and she publicly distributed a memo alleging a "toxic" and racist culture at City Hall.

Green declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

Lingering questions

In June, a report by the auditor's office painted an unflattering picture of the event, concluding that it never had a budget, sent more than half its money to out-of-state groups, and contained numerous "contracting anomalies" that caught the attention of forensic accountants.

In Burlington, Vt., where Green had previously held a similar position and put on a Juneteenth event, officials with lingering questions saw what happened in Minneapolis and ordered their own investigation into potential fraud or waste. That report found similar problems to Green's Minneapolis event. It found no evidence of embezzlement, but accused Green and event planner Casey Ellerby — whom Green also selected to plan the Minneapolis expo — of "mismanagement." In response, Green accused Burlington's mayor of white supremacy.

The Minneapolis auditor's office hasn't gone that far in any publicly released material, but a year later, its work isn't finished.

An outside consultant said a series of invoices from a Georgia-based company operated by Ellerby were "eyebrow raising," in part because some appeared to be "potential duplicates." Ellerby could not be reached for comment.

In June, City Auditor Ryan Patrick declined to speculate on whether the report uncovered any likelihood of wrongdoing, but he said it will provide the basis for more digging, consistent with a previous statement by then-Council Audit Committee Chair Linea Palmisano that Patrick's office was undertaking a series of investigations of varying depths, including into potential waste or fraud.

The status of that digging remains unclear. A city spokeswoman declined to discuss the current scope of anything the auditor's office is working on, or any timeline for its completion.

As for the department of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, Corbett said he's spent time watching old City Council meetings and reading the original ordinance that established the department, which is budgeted for 11 full-time positions, including his. At its core, he's concluded, its charge is to foster a culture of antiracism and inclusion inside the city's operations through training and awareness, "to really focus internally ... and not be so much external facing."

The botched “I Am My Ancestors' Wildest Dreams Expo” held at the Minneapolis Convention Center in February 2023 is still the subject of city audits.
The botched “I Am My Ancestors' Wildest Dreams Expo” held at the Minneapolis Convention Center in February 2023 is still the subject of city audits.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune