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The Minnesota Legislature will pay a Minneapolis law firm up to $500,000 to assist lawmakers' own investigation into the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

The move, announced Wednesday, is an unusual one that sparked immediate partisan debate and rancor. Not since the 1970s have lawmakers authorized an outside legal counsel to assist with an investigation, according to one veteran observer.

The Minneapolis law firm Gray Plant Mooty will act as legal counsel to a bipartisan House-Senate committee that is expected to issue a preliminary report on the bridge collapse in March.

"We need to know if there are changes in practices that will result in safer roads and bridges," said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, a co-chair of the bridge panel.

Senate Republican leaders labeled the hiring of the firm "a pointless, expensive and potentially damaging political exercise" by DFLers. Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, the Minority Leader, said the legislative probe would duplicate investigations already underway.

But DFLers noted that several Republicans on the special bridge committee also voted to hire Gray Plant Mooty, and said the committee will be careful to avoid duplicating investigations by the federal government, by a consultant hired by MnDOT at Gov. Tim Pawlenty's direction, or by the legislative auditor.

The National Transportation Safety Board is looking into the cause of the Aug. 1 bridge collapse, a probe that could take a year or more to complete. The Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates consulting firm selected by Pawlenty in August is being paid $2 million to conduct its own investigation into the cause and to help the NTSB.

Auditor to look into decisions

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles will examine spending decisions by MnDOT and how they may have affected the I-35W bridge and other bridges. He will concentrate on the last 10 years of construction and maintenance, bridge inspections and ratings. His findings are expected to be released early next year.

Murphy said Wednesday that the House-Senate bridge committee will not duplicate the NTSB and Wiss Janney probes of the structural cause of the collapse, but will investigate "whether actions by the state's transportation department in any way contributed to this infrastructure failure."

Murphy said that if it appeared the legislative auditor was conducting a similar policy investigation, the committee would shorten its probe to avoid duplication.

They may call it a day

"If we're satisfied with their report and we think we don't need any more information ... we're going to call it a day and move forward with legislation appropriate to concerns the legislative auditor brought up," Murphy said.

If the bridge committee's investigation were to end early next year, Gray Plant Mooty would be paid considerably less than $500,000, he said.

The firm's political action committee contributed more than $37,000 to state campaigns since 1998, about two thirds to DFLers and the rest to Republicans, including small contributions to Pawlenty.

The contract with the firm calls for monthly billing and allows the Legislature to terminate the agreement at any time, said Senate counsel Peter Wattson.

"There is danger of overlap," he said. "But the hiring committee talked about that and seemed quite determined to avoid it by trying to work with Nobles as far as the policy investigation goes, and to stay away from any of those engineering structural issues."

Even so, Pawlenty said the Legislature's review "doesn't seem to be a very wise use of tax dollars." He added that the move appeared motivated by a desire "to make political hay out of a tragic situation. I hope they would not do that."

Wattson said the only similar hiring he can recall was in the 1970s, when attorney Bernard Becker was hired as special counsel, along with his own staff, to help a joint legislative committee investigate prison conditions after a series of inmate deaths. That investigation came after an earlier probe by legislative staff into the deaths.

Hiring is 'extremely rare'

"It's extremely rare," Wattson said of the hiring of a special counsel.

Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, who has called for raising gasoline taxes to pay for transportation improvements, was among several Republicans on the bridge committee who supported hiring the Gray Plant Mooty firm to help with the investigation.

However, DFL and other Republican members sparred over the need for the probe before a vote Wednesday in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on providing money for the contract.

Senjem has 'grave fears'

Senjem said the NTSB inquiry into the bridge collapse was sufficient. "I think they're going to tell us why that bridge fell," said Senjem. "I have grave fears about why we're really doing this," he added, referring to the committee inquiry

But Murphy countered that the NTSB probe could be politically tainted. "I used to believe that the NTSB's work was above reproach," he said.

Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, compared the multiple investigations of the bridge collapse to those that occurred during Watergate, the 1970s scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

The Legislature's investigation, like the other probes into the bridge collapse, "hopefully adds to the body of information," Cohen said. • 651-222-1210 • 612-673-4388