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Prosecutor: Norman abused public trust

The prosecutor who pursued felony charges against a former Albert Lea city manager even after the City Council requested she drop them says she finds it hard to believe residents would support the man.

“He was an official who misused his position of authority,” said Brenda Miller, the assistant Waseca County attorney who prosecuted City Manager Jim Norman.

A 12-member jury in May 2011 found Norman guilty of five counts of permitting false claims against government by a public officer, one count of theft with the intent to exercise temporary control and one count of misconduct by a public officer. Mower County District Judge Fred Wellman sentenced Norman to 90 days of electronic home monitoring and five years of probation, in addition to performing 100 hours of community service.

A petition drive led by Albert Lea resident Kathy Diaz on ipetitions.com brought the issue of his prosecution and subsequent conviction back before city leaders.

The petition questions why Waseca County Attorney’s Office did not drop charges against Norman for misusing the city-issued credit card for personal use in 2010, even after the city requested the charges be dropped as part of a severance agreement. And the petition questions why former Finance Director Rhonda Moen was not charged for using the city-issued credit card for a personal use, even though she admitted to it during Norman’s trial.

In the summer of 2011, the state Auditor’s Office reviewed the case and determined no further action was necessary.

Diaz delivered a copy of the petition two weeks ago at a City Council meeting, and Mayor Vern Rasmussen addressed the petition Monday.

The mayor didn’t address Moen’s use of a city-issued credit card, but he did say the power of whether to prosecute lies with the prosecutor, not with city officials. He noted that the city, as part of a separation agreement with Norman, sent Miller a letter requesting the charges be dropped. He said the acting mayor at the time received a call from Miller stating she received the letter but nothing further was discussed.

Miller, in an interview with the Tribune on Wednesday, said just because a victim requests a prosecutor to not press charges doesn’t mean a prosecutor complies. When law enforcement presents a case, it is up to the prosecutor to decide whether to press charges.

“Victims don’t dictate whether to prosecute,” she said.

She didn’t drop the charges, she said, because Norman knew what he was doing was wrong and illegal. She said he used his position to float himself loans with the city credit card for items ranging from a refrigerator to women’s shoes to gasoline to hotel expenses. He ultimately charged $2,300 on the city-issued credit card.

“Normal citizens can’t do that,” she said.

She said Norman was a man with decades of experience in government, a man whose job it was to understand and execute contracts on behalf of the people of Albert Lea. She said for him to claim to not understand the terms of his employment was a lie. She said he had financial problems and needed the money.

“To have him argue that it was OK was disingenuous. He knew what he was doing,” Miller said.

She said many people who feel Norman didn’t deserve a felony charge fail to recall Norman turned down a plea bargain offer. He could’ve pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor charge. Instead, he went to trial.

“I find it hard to understand how citizens support officials who usurped their authority and power,” Miller said.

As for the question of Moen using the city-issued credit card, she said it seems no one complaining about Moen’s in-court admission has bothered to check whether the former finance director had permission from her supervisor, then-City Manager Victoria Simonsen, to make a personal purchase on the city credit card of airplane tickets for her husband and then reimburse the city.

Miller said the purchase violated the city policy but whether it was criminal remains to be proven. She said county prosecutors are not investigators. It is up to law enforcement to investigate alleged crimes.

She said she thinks the situation could have been worse for Norman. The city agreed to give him three months of pay as part of a severance agreement that included the city’s request to drop the charges. Miller said the city had the grounds to simply fire him outright.

Norman’s felony convictions could be reduced to gross misdemeanors or misdemeanors if he follows the terms of his sentence. The former city manager has an appeal in place and declined to comment for this story.

Other factors were behind Miller’s decision to prosecute. One was his changing story, she said. She told an anecdote of how Norman at first told authorities he thought he was using his debit card but mistakenly used the city credit card. She said investigators found he didn’t have a debit card, so then he changed his explanation to argue his purchases were valid under his employment contract.

“It was like one story after another,” Miller said.

 

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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