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Attorney says Franzen sought MPCA’s opinion

By Tim Ruzek

truzek@postbulletin.com

During permitting for a proposed hog operation, Lowell Franzen checked with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency if he legally could get a feedlot permit and transfer it while being Mower County’s feedlot officer, an attorney says.

MPCA officials told Franzen he was fully entitled to do that, just like any other citizen, said Scott Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney hired by Mower County to do investigate misconduct allegations against Franzen.

"We did not find that Mr. Franzen obtained any benefit here that could not have been obtained by any other member of the public," Anderson told the Mower County Board on Tuesday. "Any agri-business farmer in this county could go out and get a permit and sell it to someone else."

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The MPCA office in Rochester, he said, issued a feedlot permit to Franzen nearly a year ago and later approved the permit’s transfer to the major hog producer Santos Group from Northfield, Minn.

MPCA officials say they are doing an internal investigation of their own related to the Franzen matter.

The FBI, Anderson said, also sought a copy of the report on the county’s internal investigation of the matter, and obtained one by following a court-ordered process.

Franzen, though, hasn’t been charged criminally at any level for the issue, and Anderson said his investigation found Franzen didn’t do anything illegal.

Aside from special circumstances, the investigation’s 60-page report is confidential and not available to the public because of data privacy, he said.

On Tuesday, the Mower County Board voted unanimously to approve Franzen’s resignation and terms of a settlement after hearing details from Anderson on the investigation into allegations against Franzen.

Under the settlement, the county agreed to pay $56,000 to Franzen, along with $8,855 in accumulated paid time off.

Franzen was on paid leave with the county from Aug. 3 to Feb. 18, when he was put on unpaid leave, according to county officials.

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As of Dec. 31, the county had legal expenses totaling about $37,620 related to the Franzen matter. Updated cost figures, including the overall amount of paid leave given to Franzen, aren’t available yet.

The settlement document states that Franzen entered into a transaction that resulted in significant financial gain with an integrated hog producer that does operations in Mower County.

"That transaction evidenced a lack of judgment on (Franzen’s) part," according to the settlement.

Franzen’s conduct adversely affected the county’s feedlot program, Franzen and the county as a whole, the document says. County officials stated Franzen no longer was able to effectively perform his duties as the feedlot officer.

In August, more than a dozen of Franzen’s rural neighbors in Lyle Township filed allegations of misconduct against Franzen related to the feedlot project. Those neighbors, who filed a lawsuit against Franzen, the county and Santos Group, allege Franzen sold the land to Santos Group for more than $240,000 above his land’s market value.

Their lawsuit is continuing in civil court with a damages claim against Franzen and Mower County. A motion hearing is scheduled for April 21.

On Tuesday, Anderson told the board that his investigation found that Franzen’s land was a "prime site" for a major feedlot. The land’s sale price of roughly $292,000 also was deemed to be "well within the realm of market value" based on various factors, such as the site’s location, if it was permitted, and being near land for spreading manure, he said.

County board members hired a court reporter to type a recorded transcript of their discussion Tuesday of Franzen’s resignation.

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The transcript should be available to the public in a week or so, County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said.

The official settlement can be viewed at the county coordinator’s office.

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