Sabri guilty on all 3 counts

  • by: Rochelle Olson , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 7, 2004 - 10:00 PM

Basim Sabri, a charismatic and combative Minneapolis developer, was convicted Tuesday of three counts of bribing former Minneapolis City Council Member Brian Herron. Sabri likely faces between three and five years in prison. He didn't react to the verdict as it was read in the courtroom and had little to say afterward as he left the Federal Courthouse in downtown St. Paul with his lawyer and his family. "I don't really have any first thoughts," a subdued Sabri said in the elevator on the way from the seventh-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle. "We'll just have to wait and see what we're going to deal with. I obviously respect the judicial system, but I'm obviously not pleased with the outcome." Asked whether he would appeal, Sabri's lawyer, Andrew Birrell, responded, "We're going to talk about that." The jury deliberated about nine hours before reaching its verdict. The decision also came on the six-year anniversary of the first FBI-recorded conversation between Sabri and grocer Selwin Ortega. In 1998, Ortega went to the FBI to report a $7,000 loan he made to Herron, setting in motion an investigation that led to Herron's conviction for extortion, his resignation from the council on July 17, 2001, a one-year prison sentence for him and now Sabri's conviction. Sabri was convicted of offering Herron $5,000 for his support of a proposed $10 million hotel development on Lake Street just east of Interstate Hwy. 35W. The second conviction related to his offer to pay Herron $10,000 to pressure another business to sell its site. He also was convicted of offering Herron 5 percent of any government grants the former DFL council member could secure for the project. The verdict ends, for now, a string of corruption convictions tied to Minneapolis City Hall. In addition to Herron, former Council Member Joe Biernat was convicted of corruption in an unrelated case in connection with taking free plumbing while in office. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Ward and Nicole Engisch were the victorious prosecutors. But Ward wasn't willing to give Minneapolis the all-clear. "The structure of city government revealed some vulnerabilities to corruption." The ward system - with 13 council members who all have access to inspectors and constituent services programs - presents corruption opportunities, he said. No indictments against public officials remain unresolved, although questions about the breadth of corruption do. On surveillance tapes, Sabri bragged about having various city employees on the payroll, including law-enforcement officers and inspectors. He talked about illegal campaign contributions to council members. But in his testimony Monday, Sabri contended he was "acting" on those tapes and was just boasting of high-level influence to impress Ortega. In his closing arguments, Birrell said if any of those people existed and had taken bribes, they would have been put on the stand by the government. But after the conviction, Ward said such people won't just come forward and admit taking bribes. "We were hoping Basim Sabri would have cooperated and helped us identify those people. He became the dead-end in the investigation," Ward said. Ward answered at least one mystery from the investigation: He explained why it took the government so long to charge Herron, given that he took $7,000 from Ortega in 1998. Ward said the FBI was trying to determine whether the $7,000 was a loan or whether Herron wanted it forgiven or was willing to do something for the money. Instead, Sabri inserted himself between Ortega and Herron, Ward said. After the government was able to catch Herron when he asked for $10,000 from Ortega in June 2001, Herron confessed and started working with the government. When agents confronted Sabri on July 17, it became apparent he would not cooperate or admit his crimes and Herron immediately and abruptly entered his plea and resigned. The plea came within hours of the deadline to file to run for City Council in 2001 and led to some questionable maneuvering, with the last-minute filing by a Herron aide, whose candidacy ultimately failed. Had Sabri cooperated, the investigation would have remained secret and Herron would have continued to serve on the council, Ward said. The handling of the fallout from Herron's resignation proved politically fatal for the City Hall power structure. Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton lost her bid for reelection as did her allies, council President Jackie Cherryhomes and Ways and Means Chairwoman Joan Campbell. To some, Sabri was a fearsome landlord with an air of invincibility. Council Vice President Robert Lilligren now represents Herron's former ward. "I've heard complaints about Mr. Sabri's bullying ways and exploitive behavior from city staff and the vulnerable, predominantly immigrant businesspeople who rent from him," he said. "Today's guilty verdict shows those who have suffered from him that the law applies equally to everyone." . Tenants react Meanwhile, there was a mix of empathy and concern among some business owners who rent from Sabri on E. Lake Street about what impact the verdict will have on his properties. Lili Martinez, owner of Llamas T-Shirts, said she hopes she won't have to move her three-year-old business. "You never know," she said. "They might want to sell or somebody else may take over the property." At J.O. Tobacco, owner Jawad Obid said he talked to Sabri's wife, Rochelle, on Tuesday and "she said it's going to be business as usual." Emmett Henley, owner of Vasuda Salon, which opened just four months ago, said Sabri "has given chances to people who would've found it difficult or don't have the connections to open a business. He could be a little hard to deal with sometimes, but he's a businessman." The jury apparently didn't buy Sabri's claims that he feared Herron's power and that his payments to the council member were either extorted or that he was entrapped. Judge Kyle ordered a pre-sentencing report but did not set a date for sentencing. Prosecutors asked that Sabri, a Palestinian native who is now a U.S. citizen who lives in Shorewood, hand over his passport so he cannot travel abroad. . Staff writer Terry Collins contributed to this report. Rochelle Olson is at raolson@startribune.com .

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