Prosecutors and defense attorneys quibbled Wednesday over what constituted "taking an oath" as testimony began in the perjury trial of former Minneapolis landlord Stephen Frenz.
Frenz, 56, of Minneapolis, is on trial in Hennepin County District Court for one count of felony perjury for allegedly lying in a written affidavit filed in housing court in 2016.
A jury of six women and seven men were seated Wednesday morning before opening statements and testimony began.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Diane Krenz told jurors that Frenz created three fake tenants in an attempt to get the housing court case against him thrown out, since state law required a majority of units in a building to approve such civil action.
"You will learn that this defendant, Stephen Frenz, signed that affidavit, which included providing false information," Krenz said.
Krenz said two people Frenz listed as tenants would testify that they never occupied the units, and that authorities aren't sure if the third person even exists.
The issue began in January 2016 when a group of tenants at Frenz's property in the 3000 block of 14th Avenue S. filed a petition for emergency intervention by the court. They claimed the building wasn't adequately heated, the front door could be opened by outsiders and the premises were "infested" with roaches, bedbugs and mice.
A team of attorneys and investigators from Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the law firm representing the tenants pro-bono in housing court, discovered inconsistencies in the information Frenz gave the court by using public records and utility billing information from Xcel Energy.
Frenz's long and troubled career as a Minneapolis landlord has been marked by several public fights with his tenants and the city, including the loss of his rental license and a multimillion-dollar settlement in 2018 to resolve a class-action lawsuit.
One of Frenz's defense attorneys, Paul Engh, tried to cut through the controversy surrounding his client, including accusations that he staged vacant units to appear occupied in the 2016 case, by telling jurors the only thing they should consider is whether anyone read Frenz an oath before he signed the affidavit.
"Remember," Engh said, "this is a dispute about one piece of this case, and it is about the oath. Everything else is superfluous."
Engh told jurors that no one, including notary public Jeffrey Shields, who signed off on the affidavit, ever gave Frenz an oath before he signed the court document.
Shields was an employee of Frenz's, Engh told jurors, adding that Shields notarized Frenz's signature and nothing else.
"The absence of fact is not truth," Engh said.
Prosecutors tried to raise the issue of an implied oath in their questioning of Isaac Hall, an attorney at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP who worked on the housing court case.
Senior Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Susan Crumb asked Hall to read portions of Frenz's affidavit that included boilerplate legal phrases, including, "Stephen Frenz, being duly sworn," which led the document, and an inscription above Shields' signature that read, "Subscribed and sworn to before me."
Frenz's other attorney, Robert Sicoli, objected each time, noting that Crumb was asking Hall to speculate about what occurred when Frenz and Shields signed the document. Ramsey County District Judge Robert Awsumb, who is presiding over the case to prevent a conflict of interest, sustained Sicoli's objections.
"Does it say anything about an oath?" Sicoli asked Hall regarding Frenz's affidavit.
No, Hall answered.
Sicoli asked if the affidavit stated anything about presenting information "under penalty of perjury," a phrase multiple witnesses — under questioning by the prosecution — testified is common in affidavits. Hall said it did not.
Testimony resumes Thursday; attorneys expect the trial to wrap up this week.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708