"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reflecting on winter and Rileys' travails

I backed out of the driveway Saturday morning knowing I'd hear crunching under my tires. The slush created by the recent thaw had frozen. We all had our fingers crossed that the thaw could last longer.
Weather is so central in our thoughts but we're helpless in the face of it. We talk and speculate but in the end we just adapt. I knew those crunching sounds were coming.
I drove to the restaurant which is where a lot of shiftless people like me congregate. I purchased my Star Tribune from that green vending machine and soon discovered that two pages were blank - no ink! One of these pages had the continuation of the Wisconsin kerfuffle story from page 1 - the main reason I bought the paper.
So, not a very good start to the day. I could have brought this matter to the attention of the restaurant proprietor, Boe DeToy, but I'm sure he would've just felt like sighing.
Newspapers know that most people aren't going to take the trouble to rectify something like this. I'm sure I could have arranged something. But Boe needs to concentrate on his stock and trade.
I exchanged hand gestures with my favorite waitress to make sure I'd sit in her section. During the NFL season we squeeze in as much football talk as possible while she (sometimes feverishly) makes her rounds. This UMM student (from Elk River) has a talent for this calling.
When I first quoted a football thought from her on this site, I assumed her name was spelled "Felicia." As an old newspaper person I should have realized you never assume anything.
This past Christmas the names of DeToy's employees were posted and I was astonished to discover that an "x" was in the name. It's "Felixia" which is a quite appealing spelling but one that probably calls for an explanation once in a while.
Now that we're into the wasteland of the post-Super Bowl period, there's less for us to talk about. We'll have to shift gears somehow.
On Saturday morning it wasn't hard to come up with conversation fodder at DeToy's. My ripoff blank pages in my Star Tribune did not include pages 1B and 2B. I believe I hadn't even gotten my reading glasses positioned when my friends in the next booth gave me a heads-up as to the paper's contents.
There was a very large headline at the top of page 1B that was going to generate buzz in ol' Motown. The headline itself didn't refer to Morris but the subhead did.
We always get goosebumps out here when our little burg gets into the "city paper." Of course, the media often gravitate toward subjects that aren't flattering toward their principals. Here's a case in point: "Tax cheats defended at home."
Those are the words that jumped out at us from the top of 1B. Then we had the subhead that identified Morris. As an aid, the Star Tribune (condescendingly) had a little Minnesota map graphic with a dot so the readers would know where Petticoat Junction, I mean Morris, is.
At this point in the morning I didn't need coffee to wake up anymore. I had thought this whole matter of the Rileys had blown over. I thought that whatever penalties applied had been paid. I knew there was still a suspension period where the firm couldn't work for government entities. But I certainly thought we were past the "bombshell news" period.
Back in the days when I was active in this community, I always had the most favorable impression of Joe and John Riley. I wasn't alone.
When the spectre of legal problems arose, though, I thought it was important that we "compartmentalize." It was fine to retain those favorable impressions while acknowledging that some untoward stuff might have been going on.
I hate saying "I told you so," but when the legal issues first starting coming to our attention, I warned people about Morris giving the impression it was "rallying" behind the accused parties.
People were having trouble compartmentalizing.
Because the alleged wrongdoers had done good things, a lot of people wanted the bad stuff to be swept under the rug. The name of Riley Brothers Construction is on the Big Cat Stadium scoreboard. The company and its owners came to have iconic stature here.
Morris is a small town and somewhat isolated - circumstances that I sometimes think promote a strong "party line" way of thinking here. We can also overestimate our importance, because when town leaders reach a consensus on something, we hammer away at the merit we see behind it. We put aside the intellectual rigors of analysis.
We fail to take that proverbial "deep breath."
Worst of all we can fail to recognize minority opinions. People who dissent can get pounded down like a nail into a board. The problem is that when an issue goes beyond our boundaries, i.e. when it gets the attention of people with no parochial bias, the whole town risks getting pounded into that board.
Put in a nutshell, the theme of the Star Tribune article (continued onto page 2B) was the irony of wrongdoers whose missteps seemed pretty significant, getting zealously defended in their town.
How did the Star Tribune reporters, Randy Furst and Paul Walsh, develop this angle? They must have gotten tips from people in the legal system that the accused individuals were the subject of a rallying cry from their town.
I know firsthand that there was a "lobbying effort," as it were, because I received an email from someone well-connected to UMM that gave the impression (accurate or not) that UMM was putting its muscle behind the effort. Soon thereafter I shared a strong concern in some informal conversations that this might not be a wise course either for UMM or the town's leadership network in general.
It might be best in these sensitive economic times for UMM to steer clear of controversy.
I told people that I wished the Rileys themselves would make a public statement, that they were going to accept the legal system's judgment and that Morris officials shouldn't have to squirm or go into contortions with arguments on their behalf.
I don't think such a statement was ever made.
We learn from the Star Tribune that Joe and John are each sentenced to three and a half years in prison. The sentencing judge, Patrick Schiltz (not Schlitz like the beer), was quoted saying the brothers "committed as serious a tax offense as one can imagine."
The judge said cheating was "a way of life" for the defendants.
The brothers were also fined $250,000 each. Their guilty pleas were made in November. Judge Schlitz, I mean Schiltz, said "the brothers sat in my courtroom under oath and lied."
For you legal neophytes, let me just inform you that lying under oath is a pretty bad thing - real bad. Don't ever do it.
As the TV character Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) once said in an episode, with conviction: "What a tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive."
I wonder if the Rileys will end up in a country club prison. Maybe they'll get to know Denny Hecker.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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