Detective at odds with top brass, petitions special masterby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A detective for the state's Commerce Department today asked a special master that his work be ruled essential.
Jonathan Ferris is one in a team of ten sworn officers who investigate high-profile white-collar crimes. Ferris and six other members of his team were laid off last Friday as a result of the budget stalemate at the Capitol.
Most law enforcement officers, from state troopers to local beat cops, continue to hang onto their jobs during the Minnesota shutdown. The department hasn't explained why some investigators are still working and others aren't.
The petition is likely the first instance this shutdown of a state employee publicly at odds with his employer over whether he's an essential worker.
The former state trooper made his case Thursday before Special Master Kathleen Blatz that he and the rest of his team should get back to work:
"As members of the law enforcement profession, each of us took an oath to uphold the constitution, our community and the agency we serve. We take that oath very seriously," Ferris said. "As law enforcement officers, we ask that you allow us to recognize that oath and allow us to perform our duties."
The insurance-fraud division investigates financial crimes and takes down scammers and swindlers. Ferris said county and federal prosecutors often charge the targets of the investigations with felonies, including racketeering and arson.
In a most recent high-profile investigation, the state detectives uncovered an elaborate alleged mortgage fraud case that is currently being prosecuted by Hennepin County.
Ferris said the government shutdown means bad news for investigations that are under way.
"An undercover investigation related to a healthcare fraud investigation has been stopped. The detective who was working in an undercover capacity is currently laid off."
Ferris argues that the investigators help protect public safety, a core function of government that has already been broadly ruled on by a Ramsey County judge. Other officers -- conservation officers, troopers and agents who enforce alcohol and gambling laws -- remain on duty through the shutdown.
Ferris' his testimony received a cool response from lawyers representing Governor Mark Dayton. Former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug noted that the recommendation to lay off the seven detectives came from the commerce department head.
"So, you're here disagreeing with the commissioner's decision today?" Lillehaug asked during the hearing.
"I'm not disagreeing with the commissioner. I'm merely here as the voice of seven detectives who are currently laid off," Ferris said. "I respect the commissioner's decision."
Ferris emphasized that he was testifying as a union member of the Minnesota Law Enforcement Association and not on behalf of his department, where he's only been working for seven months.
Wednesday, after Ferris submitted his petition to the special master, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman filed his own letter to Kathleen Blatz. Rothman wrote that Ferris "has no authority" to act on behalf of the department or the insurance-fraud division. Rothman declined to be interviewed for this story.
Lillehaug asked Ferris why the Minnesota Law Enforcement Association hadn't filed a grievance to dispute the layoffs on behalf of the officers.
Ferris responded that a grievance claim could take several months to resolve -- time that was crucial to the officers and their work.
"It's our belief that the importance of this issue is why the special master was appointed," Ferris said. "And it is our belief that we could come before you and ask you to look at our situation, because we feel it is a critical core function of government."
The special master agreed with Ferris' right to appeal the layoffs, but gave no indication of how she would rule. Blatz will make recommendations to the judge, who today began to issue orders on individual petitions.
A representative of the Minnesota law enforcement association said almost every peace officer employed by the state continues to work through the shutdown. One exception is the 41 newly-sworn state troopers who were undergoing field training when the government closed.
- All Things Considered, 07/07/2011, 4:49 p.m.