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County rail consultant also did work for private rail group

A rail consultant working for Olmsted County also did consulting work for a private company rail company seeking to build a high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities.

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A rail consultant working for Olmsted County also did consulting work for a private company seeking to build a high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities.

Chuck Michael had a consulting contract with North American High Speed Rail Group last year on projects outside the state of Minnesota at the same time he had a contract with the Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority. His work with the county has included helping coordinate an environmental study for a the proposed Zip Rail project, a publicly funded high-speed rail line that would link the Med City with the Twin Cities.

Olmsted County Commissioner Paul Wilson said Michael did not tell the county board he was doing consulting work for the rail group. He noted that Michael is an independent consultant and said he doesn't see any cause for concern.

"I don't see anything here that would be a conflict of interest," Wilson said. "If he's working on something out of the state, that would be a different project. I'm sure an independent contractor has more than one venue."

But high-speed rail critics see it differently.

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Heather Arndt, a leader of Citizens Concerned About Rail Line, said she is "thoroughly enraged" to find out Michael did work for the rail group and did not disclose it. She said she believes it is a conflict of interest and raises questions about the work being done in the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement.

"All of it compromises the integrity of the taxpayer-funded study," Arndt said.

Several consulting contracts

Michael said as part of his consulting businesses he has contracts with several groups. He said he did a little bit of consulting work for the rail group on projects out of state. He doesn't believe it is a conflict of interest because Olmsted County has no contractual relationship with the rail group and neither does the Minnesota Department of Transportation. He said he also made a point of not agreeing to do any work for the rail group in the state of Minnesota.

"I didn't do work inside (the state) because — I don't think there would be a conflict — but it would be awkward, and I'd like to avoid awkward," Michael said.

The rail group is seeking to build a $4.2 billion, elevated high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities that would be funded by U.S. and Chinese investors. The group's efforts come as MnDOT is considering suspending work on the Zip Rail project due to a lack of federal and state funds to advance the project.

Wendy Meadley, chief manager of the rail group, said the company hired Michael as a consultant, but only on projects outside the state of Minnesota.

"We did utilize his skills for some things to make some assessments in other parts of the country because he has got a background in it. We were looking out east, down south, out west," Meadley said.

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Michael was paid $153,324 for consulting services providing to Olmsted County in 2014 and was paid $104,723 as of August 2015, according to Anita Greden, the county's financial reporting manager.

Olmsted County Administrator Richard Devlin said Michael did not tell him he had done work for the North American High Speed Rail Group.

"But he is a private contractor. He can do that. He's not required to do that, but if it was anything significant, we'd certainly want to know about it," Devlin said. "And I don't think it was, or I know he would have disclosed it."

Sperber out as CEO

There has also been a shakeup in leadership at the Bloomington-based rail group. Joe Sperber is no longer CEO of the company. Meadley said he left that position in December.

"He is pursuing new opportunities and we wish him well," she said.

Joseph Wang, who has served as the group's chairman, is the company's interim CEO.

Related Topics: OLMSTED COUNTY
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