It was passing strange that Mike (the Bulldog) Hatch, the endorsed DFL candidate for governor, made a formal complaint to the Minnesota News Council about a story that the Star Tribune had not run. Since there was no article, it seemed especially weird. The Strib reporters had been asking about Hatch's parking tickets, which were part of the dirt that Matt Entenza's oppo investigation turned up. Ordinarily, parking tickets are not that big a deal per se.
But the question is far more interesting when you are asking where the parking took place. The Strib decided to run an article today. Here it is - draw your own conclusions:
Hatch was smear target, a sheriff suspects
Location of attorney general's parking ticket spurred a private investigator's interest, says Dakota County's Gudmundson.
Mike Kaszuba and Pat Doyle, Star Tribune
Last update: July 26, 2006 – 10:54 PM
When Dakota County Sheriff Don Gudmundson heard last year that someone was asking his office about an old parking ticket issued to Attorney General Mike Hatch, he said he quickly became suspicious.
Gudmundson said Wednesday that he is convinced that a man working for a Chicago firm, hired by former state attorney general candidate Matt Entenza, tried to use the ticket to link Hatch to a park-overlook known as a gay-cruising area as part of what he surmised was a smear attempt.
He said any effort to link Hatch to the area and its reputation was "pure crap." But he said the firm may have thought it had "won the lottery" when it saw the ticket was issued to Hatch's car parked at the overlook.
Entenza was unavailable for comment Wednesday. Earlier this month, he acknowledged hiring the firm to explore the workings of Hatch's office, yet said he was "horrified" to learn later that broader inquiries were made without his knowledge or approval.
The firm has confirmed it collected more public documents than Entenza requested.
But if Gudmundson's theory is correct, the inquiry into the 2003 ticket illustrates the tough and unsparing digging into Hatch's personal as well as professional life by the firm, Gragert Research. After reports of the broader investigation surfaced, Entenza withdrew from the attorney general race. Gragert did not return a phone call Wednesday seeking a comment about Gudmundson's conclusions. V.J. Bustos, the man who sought details about the parking ticket on behalf of Gragert, also did not return a phone call. Both have declined repeated requests to discuss their roles.
Hatch didn't comment Wednesday on the sheriff's conclusion. His spokeswoman, Leslie Sandberg, said he was moving on to other issues "rather than rehashing what is now history."
Gudmundson said when he heard about the inquiry he quickly surmised -- because of the location where the ticket was issued -- that the goal was to find potentially unflattering information about Hatch.
"I had no idea who was looking," Gudmundson said. "I didn't have a hint. I knew ... it would have been, what I would consider, opposition research."
Gragert's investigation of the ticket surfaced after the Star Tribune reported on July 12 that Entenza had hired the firm to conduct an inquiry into possible government spending by Hatch on furniture and artwork for his personal office and on travel. Bustos filed a request for such financial details, and the newspaper later obtained documents showing he also asked Dakota County authorities about the parking ticket.
It was issued to Hatch's car in December 2003 when it was parked after hours at the Big Rivers Trail scenic overlook parking lot in Mendota Heights.
Hatch's office has said that he and his wife each drove their cars to the Big Rivers Trail overlook, left their Buick at the site and drove in one car to a party they attended that night. The next day, they retrieved the Buick, discovered the ticket and promptly paid it.
Bustos inquired about the ticket in early 2005.
Said Gudmundson: "My antennaes were up right away, from the beginning, because why would anybody be interested in this petty parking ticket?"
He said he learned of Entenza's hiring of the firm only after reading about it in the newspapers. "My senior staff, my chief deputy and other people, they knew exactly what this investigator and Mr. Entenza was trying to find," Gudmundson said.
But Entenza previously said the broader inquiry wasn't his idea. He said Gragert, "in an effort to impress me and other clients in Minnesota," went far beyond his requests and conducted a full-scale investigation of Hatch's professional and personal history. "It's not right, it's not something I condoned," Entenza said.
More reputation than fact
Dakota County officials said the scenic overlook's reputation as a cruising area for gay men, while not generally well known, also is based more on reputation than fact.
"I don't know if the general public would know that," said Sgt. Brian McGinn of the Sheriff's Office's parks, lakes and trails unit. "I bet if you asked 90 percent of my friends, they'd have no clue."
Gudmundson said he telephoned Hatch in March 2005 to alert him to the inquiries about the parking ticket -- a move he said he made because Hatch was the chief law enforcement officer in Minnesota and, as a Burnsville resident, was also a constituent of Gudmundson's in Dakota County.
"He was surprised there was this reputation," the sheriff said. "He's like, 'What? I didn't know that.' "
Hatch this week referred to the call in a letter he sent to the Minnesota News Council objecting to questions from Star Tribune reporters about the ticket and other matters. Reporters asked about circumstances leading to the ticket after learning that Gragert had inquired about it.
The sheriff said he believed Hatch's explanation that he received the parking ticket after leaving a car there overnight because he and his wife were attending a social event and did not want to drive two cars.
Gudmundson said he kept a file on the episode and faxed a copy, including the private investigator's request for information, to Hatch. "I knew way back in March  that I was going to get caught in the middle of this," he said. "It troubled me the whole time because I thought, you know, they're going to try to pin this on Mike Hatch."
Gudmundson said he is not a supporter of Hatch's gubernatorial bid against Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has also been a Dakota County resident. "I don't have a dog in this fight," he said. "The governor's my friend. Mr. Hatch is my friend