VIRGINIA— Former Tower Mayor Josh Carlson has pleaded guilty to engaging in official misconduct when he removed Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger from his position as president of the Tower …
VIRGINIA— Former Tower Mayor Josh Carlson has pleaded guilty to engaging in official misconduct when he removed Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger from his position as president of the Tower Economic Development Authority in January 2018.
Carlson made his plea in the Sixth District Court in Virginia on Wednesday as part of a plea deal reached with county prosecutors. The judge issued a stay of ajudication, which means Carlson’s conviction won’t be immediately entered into the record and could be cleared away if he remains law-abiding for the next year. He was required to pay a $50 fine.
The St. Louis County Attorney’s Office had charged Carlson along with former Tower City Clerk- Treasurer Linda Keith over the removal of Helmberger, which came in apparent retaliation for unflattering news coverage and editorials questioning decision-making by city officials.
But Carlson cited a different rationale in the Virginia courtroom last Wednesday. Carlson’s attorney, Jon Rice of Hibbing, led the former mayor through a brief recitation of what was supposed to be a factual accounting of events, but instead prompted his client to make a false statement to the court over the reasons behind Helmberger’s removal.
Referencing Helmberger, Rice asked Carlson: “And at one point, you found out that he was making commitments for the city without contacting you as the mayor of the City of Tower, is that correct?”
“That is correct,” said Carlson.
While neither Rice nor Carlson provided any context to the claim, it was an apparent reference to a grant to TEDA from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board that was subsequently loaned to the developers of a town home project to which the city had committed financially. That grant and subsequent loan grew out of a meeting in late January 2017 between the developers, IRRRB officials, including Commissioner Mark Phillips, and Helmberger. City officials were made aware of the meeting and the possibility of a grant proposed by the IRRRB within days of the meeting and were regularly kept abreast through both written and verbal reports to the council of developments in advancing the grant. Written TEDA reports to the city council detailing meetings in February, March, April, May, and June 2017, all made reference to ongoing work on the funding proposal (See posted reports above). The city council, with Carlson present, unanimously approved a resolution signaling support for the funding on Feb. 13, barely two weeks after the initial IRRR meeting. The council subsequently approved the grant on May 22, 2017, according to official city minutes (See posted minutes above).
Carlson did not respond to a texted request for comment on his false statement to the court, which was made under oath. Carlson’s attorney immediately hung up the phone when contacted for this story.
Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jessica Fralich, who was not present at the court hearing, said that Carlson’s claim regarding Helmberger should have been stricken from the record. Even if it were true, she said, it doesn’t mitigate Carlson’s actions.
Under state law, a city council can only remove an appointed member of an economic development authority with just cause and must provide a hearing to give the member a chance to speak to any charges. The Tower City Council removed Helmberger from TEDA without stated cause, claiming that his term had expired. In fact, Helmberger had been appointed one year earlier to a three-year term that expired at the end of 2019, but the city’s official roster of commission and committee terms was altered to disguise that fact. Keith is facing criminal charges of her own for altering that official document.
The city has also submitted a separate complaint to the county attorney’s office over Keith’s apparent destruction of a city laptop computer that she had in her possession when she was suspended from her position back in June of this year.. When city officials asked her to return the computer, she stated that she had her son shoot the computer. She stated that she then ran the laptop over with her pickup truck and burned the remains in a fire.
If the value of the computer and the lost data is set over $1,000, Keith could face felony charges for that incident. Assistant County Attorney Jessica Fralich said the county is still reviewing whether to file charges in that case.
Keith, who also appeared in court on Wednesday on the falsification of records charge, did not enter a plea. Instead, her attorney submitted a motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause, a motion that is relatively standard in such cases and typically not successful. That motion is scheduled for oral arguments in a Virginia courtroom on Friday, Oct. 25.
Unlike Keith, who refused to meet with county officers investigating her case, Carlson did speak to investigators and told them that he believed, based on information provided by Keith, that he had authority to remove Helmberger from TEDA with a simple motion. Carlson also indicated that Keith would have been the one who had altered the city’s official roster of committee and commission terms, since that was a document that she maintained.
The alteration of the document raises questions about what Carlson and Keith actually understood about their ability to remove Helmberger. While Carlson claimed he believed he had authority to remove Helmberger with a motion, he did imply during the Jan. 22, 2018 council meeting that Helmberger’s term had expired, even though Carlson apparently knew that it had not.
Altering Helmberger’s term on the city’s commissions and committees roster, to make it appear that his term had expired, suggests that Keith, at a minimum, understood the requirement to provide due process before removing a TEDA member.
Emails, obtained through a search warrant in the case, suggest that Keith had lobbied Carlson for Helmberger’s removal from TEDA, and that Carlson had agreed to do so. That was confirmed in a Dec. 7, 2017, email from Keith to council member Kevin Fitton, in which Keith told Fitton, “The mayor says for Christmas this year he got me a present which is to take Marshall off of TEDA in January.”
Carlson also misled investigators during his interview with them earlier this year. According to the criminal complaint, Carlson falsely told St. Louis County investigators that he had removed Helmberger for obtaining the grant from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation without council approval, even though Carlson had voted with the rest of the council to approve the grant in May, 2017.
Former council member Fitton also spoke briefly to investigators, suggesting his belief that Helmberger had been removed for cause. Earlier this year, before his resignation from the council, Fitton had claimed that Helmberger had been insubordinate on TEDA for contacting the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency over a wastewater discharge permit related to a sewer extension to the Hoodoo Point Campground. Fitton never indicated how that action, which was undertaken as part of Helmberger’s newspaper reporting on the issue, was cause for removal from TEDA. Helmberger’s contact with the MPCA had uncovered that city officials at the time had made a significant error on the permit, which required the city to submit a new application.
Fitton may have gotten closer to the truth in January of this year when he noted that Helmberger’s actions and criticism of some city decisions had left council members upset with him. “He burned enough bridges with enough council members that we just said that ‘enough is enough of that,’” said Fitton.