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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Work environment at issue after firing of Otto Bremer Trust grant, executive director

For more than six years, Diane Benjamin reviewed grant applications for the Otto Bremer Trust, taking pains to ensure that the funds would be used in accordance with the written will of German immigrant, banking czar and philanthropist Otto Bremer. , who helped countless Midwestern farming communities during the Great Depression.

When Benjamin, the trust’s senior program officer, visited potential grant recipients, he learned that some had already received large sums of money from the trust without his knowledge.

These “strategic” grants were handled by one or more of the three trustees of the St. Paul-based philanthropy outside of traditional reviews of employees. “The trustees ran that process,” Benjamin said, when questioned Tuesday by the Minnesota Attorney General’s office. “It was awkward at best. Sometimes grantees would ask me if there was any other way to get money, especially if they were turned down. I don’t know what to say.”

Tired of the “unstable” work environment following the termination of executive director Randy Roth in 2014, Benjamin tearfully described how he eventually left the Otto Bremer Trust without a new job.

the witnesses stand

Benjamin was one of three witnesses to take the stand on Tuesday, the second day of a probate hearing that could determine whether the three trustees will remain on top of the $1 billion philanthropy.

The Attorney General’s Office sought the removal of S. Brian Lipschultz, Charlotte Johnson and Daniel Reardon as trustees based on allegations of failing their professional and fiduciary duties as leaders of one of the state’s oldest charities. Is.

Among witnesses was former communications director Christine Fugelstad, who spent eight and a half months at the trust before being offered a severance pay of $51,000, or nine months, until she agreed not to file any claims against the organization. Without an executive director during that time, “there really wasn’t a suitable place or a safe place to talk to about ethical concerns,” she said.

One of those concerns was a $500,000 grant Reardon directed toward the St. Paul Police Foundation for Access to Communities of Color. Fuglstad had no objection to the program, but Reardon told her that the purpose of the grant was to “ensure that Todd Extel was elected chief of police,” she wrote in an email to herself in June 2016.

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On cross-examination, a lawyer for the Otto Bremer Trust said that the police chief was not chosen by anyone. Axtell was appointed chief that month by then-mayor Chris Coleman, based on input from a 32-member committee of community representatives.

‘We didn’t fund any kind of schools’

The trust, based on its governing documents, traditionally prioritizes grant applications for basic needs, emergency services, economic development, adult literacy and job skills – but not for K-12 courses, sporting events, animal shelters or one-times. Not conferences and performances.

Recipients such as the Como Zoo and Conservatory, the WE Day Youth Fest and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul – which erected a prominent plaque recognizing financial support from the Trust – struck Benjamin as an odd fit, especially because he was interested in other arts. The organizations were told not to apply.

Benjamin heard from colleagues about grants to Blake School, a private school in Minneapolis and Hopkins, where Lipschultz served as a trustee and enrolled children. Historically, “we didn’t fund schools of any kind,” Benjamin said.

For We Day, “the organization was located in Canada outside of our geography,” Benjamin said. “The other thing is that we usually don’t fund events. They didn’t have ongoing community effects. “

funding for youth promotion

Jan Conlin, an attorney for the trustees, noted during the cross-examination that grant money to the Blake School supported the LearningWorks program, a partnership with Minneapolis public schools to provide low-income students on campus for summer and weekend enrichment programs. to bring. He said the trust documents allow funds for youth enrichment.

Como Zoo, Conlin said, is one of the few free municipal zoos in the country, if not the only one.

“Do you agree that Ordway is one of the centers of St. Paul’s cultural life?” Conlin asked.

To which Benjamin replied, “Well, I live in Minneapolis. … (and) we weren’t funding capital projects in the metro area at the time.”

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