Politics, red ink top Minn. news for the year 2010

Published 9:16 am Monday, January 3, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — The white snow flew and the red ink grew as 2010 drew to a close in Minnesota, but the blizzard that brought down the Metrodome roof and the projection of a daunting $6.2 billion state deficit were just two of the year’s most notable stories.

The state also had its second straight major election recount, a Republican takeover of the Legislature, sudden freedom for a man who blamed his Toyota for a crash that killed three people, and a $50 million settlement for victims of the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

2010 started with the state government sweating a multi-billion-dollar deficit and ended that way, too. In January, Gov. Tim Pawlenty was asking the state Supreme Court to quickly rule whether he acted properly in cutting the budget by $2.7 billion after an impasse with the DFL-controlled Legislature.

In May, the court ruled Pawlenty’s cuts unconstitutional. With time running out, the Legislature and Pawlenty found a solution that included withholding more than $1 billion from schools. But that won’t be much help going into the next session, when the new crop of leaders will face a deficit projected at $6.2 billion.

At the head of the class will be Gov.-elect Mark Dayton, who will lead the first Democratic administration in 20 years. His slim victory over Republican Tom Emmer, confirmed by a recount, was an aberration as Republicans swept into office throughout the state on Nov. 2.

The party tapped into voters’ frustrations with budget deficits and the sluggish economic recovery at both the state and federal levels. Now the next Minnesota House and Senate will be controlled by the GOP for the first time in a generation.

It will also be the first time in 60 years that the Iron Range doesn’t send a Democrat to the U.S. House. Republican newcomer Chip Cravaack upset 36-year incumbent Jim Oberstar, the House transportation chairman, in November’s biggest upset.

In the state’s courtrooms, two of the largest business scandals in recent state history ground toward resolution.

In the $3.7 billion Ponzi scheme that sent Tom Petters to prison for 50 years, the woman who blew the whistle on him — Deanna Coleman— got one year in prison while Robert White, who admitted forging 10,000 documents in the plot, got five years.

Former auto mogul Denny Hecker was charged with cheating an auto financing company and other commercial lenders out of millions of dollars. In September, he pleaded guilty in federal court to two fraud-related counts and faces 10 years in prison. He had already filed for bankruptcy.

Former Minneapolis police officer turned robber Timothy Carson, 29, went to prison. Koua Fong Lee, 32, of St. Paul, walked out of one.

Carson pleaded guilty to a string of robberies and attempted robberies in Minneapolis and its suburbs over three weeks. Carson’s attorney said the father of two was overwhelmed by financial problems, a sick daughter and anxiety. Carson was sentenced to 10 years.

Lee went free in August after spending more than 2 1/2 years in prison because a Ramsey County jury didn’t believe he had tried to stop his Toyota from crashing into another vehicle, killing three people in 2006. Lee had been sentenced to eight years, but he got a new trial in the wake of Toyota’s well publicized problems with sudden acceleration in some models.

The courts also saw a settlement in the 2007 Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people and injured 145. Engineering firm URS agreed to pay more than $52.4 million to settle scores of lawsuits brought by survivors and the families of those killed. The settlement resolved the last major piece of litigation brought by victims.

In June, it looked like there might be a break in one of the most infamous mysteries in state history, the 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling. Law enforcement officers carrying search warrants converged on a St. Joseph farm and started digging. But in September, Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner announced forensic tests on items taken from the farm revealed no evidence linking them to the crime.

Minneapolis remained the center of a federal investigation into recruiting by al-Shabab, a terrorist group in Somalia. The years-long investigation saw new charges against several people in 2010, including two Rochester women who claim they were raising money for charity. Prosecutors say the women were actively raising money for al-Shabab. Similar charges of supporting terrorism were also filed against suspects in Alabama, Missouri, and San Diego.

Minnesota Somalis were stunned when a federal indictment in Tennessee alleged Somali gangs from here were trafficking girls as young as 12 across state lines for sex.

Minnesotans also watched courtrooms overseas. In Iran, hiker Sarah Shourd, 31, was released from prison in September on medical grounds while the two men arrested with her, Shane Bauer, 27, and Josh Fattal, 27, remain held on espionage charges. Their trial is set for Feb. 6.

In Rwanda, William Mitchell College of Law Peter Erlinder was arrested in May after traveling to the African nation to help an opposition leader who wanted to run for president. Erlinder was detained for about a month on claims that he had minimized the country’s genocide in articles published on the Internet. Erlinder, a defense attorney for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was eventually released because his health was deteriorating.

A Minneapolis businessman and three of his children were killed in October when their small plane crashed in northwest Wyoming. They were 40-year-old Luke Bucklin, his 14-year-old twins Nate and Nick, and his 12-year-old son Noah. Federal investigators found that shortly before the crash the pilot reported light turbulence and that ice was forming on the plane.

One tragedy defied explanation. An April fire in the apartments above McMahon’s Pub in Minneapolis killed six people. Authorities said it didn’t appear to be arson, but despite an extensive investigation they couldn’t determine the cause.

Minnesota’s fickle weather drove some of 2010’s biggest stories.

The Red River threatened a repeat of the record-breaking spring floods of 2009, which caused $100 million in damage, but then crested 4 feet lower in 2010 without doing serious damage to homes and other buildings. The scare focused attention on a diversion project that would bring long-term peace of mind to the Fargo, N.D.-Moorhead area. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working with local officials to find the best route to protect the cities without harming downstream communities.

Minnesota led the nation with 145 tornado touchdowns in 2010, according to the National Weather Service. On June 17 alone, dozens of tornados hit the state, killing three people, injuring 45 and causing extensive property damage.

It seemed that just as tornado season ended, the snows moved in. Minneapolis struggled through its snowiest December on record: 33.4 inches, including a Dec. 10-11 dump of more than 17 inches that earned nicknames like “snowpocolypse” and “snowmygod.”

It was enough to bring down the fabric roof of the Metrodome, providing a painful metaphor for the collapse of the 2010 Minnesota Vikings. The team started with another dramatic entrance by quarterback Brett Favre and Super Bowl dreams — but injuries and ineptitude led to coach Brad Childress’ dismissal and the team stumbled toward last place in the division. One highlight for fans: an outdoor game against Chicago at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium that brought back memories of the ’70s squads that dominated at the Met.

The Vikings actually wound up losing more games to weather than the Twins, who opened their sparkling new Target Field to record attendance of more than 3.2 million fans. The Twins went on to a division win — and another early playoff exit at the hands of the New York Yankees.