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Two Harbors mayor controversies: How this story was produced

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The Story: Ethical concerns involving Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson

This began with an emailed tip in December 2021. A reader sent us a link to a podcast Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson appeared on in August 2021 outlining plans for a $400 million underwater hotel in Lake Superior with “Mr. O,” an anonymous man claiming to be a billionaire. Swanson repeatedly used his title as mayor in the episode and suggested he could use the “sway” of his office to secure public funding for the project. We also found a website where he used his title to solicit investors.

When we published the first story in January , it prompted a number of other tips about his mixing of business and public service.

Follow-up stories included: identifying the “billionaire” working with Swanson on the underwater hotel, showing Swanson had formed a company for the underwater hotel and showing the Festival of Sail he was pushing for at the City Council level was being organized by a nonprofit recently formed by his daughter.

Ultimately, the city attorney concluded Swanson repeatedly used his official city position “for personal benefit or business interests,” on several of these and other issues. Additionally, reaction to these stories led to a recall effort that garnered almost 1,000 signatures from Two Harbors residents, more than 40% of the town’s registered voters.

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DOCUMENT BRIEF

A.D. Hopkins. "To catch a thief: Ex-crook helps businesses find robbers in roost." Las Vegas Review. May 20, 1984.

We identified Mr. O as Daniel Victor Hancock by watching the “About Mr. O” video on the “Mr. O. Recluse” YouTube channel where a newspaper article appeared. Although the names were redacted, we knew he lived in Las Vegas, so we simply searched the Las Vegas Review-Journal's archives and the exact clipping came up immediately.

Certificate of Organization of 8th Wonder on Lake Superior LLC. Minnesota Secretary of State. Nov. 17, 2021.

Despite claims that he was merely trying to bring an outside economic development project into the area, we found Swanson had formed a limited liability corporation for the underwater hotel, raising new questions on his involvement in the project. Swanson’s connection to the LLC was found using opencorporates.com , which pulls data in from various publicly available sources, some of which may not show up in results in a traditional search engine like Google. It was then confirmed through the News Tribune’s own purchase of the Secretary of State’s records.

Certificate of Organization of First Day Events. Minnesota Secretary of State. Sept. 9, 2021. and Notice of Change of Registered Office/Registered Agent of First day events. Minnesota Secretary of State. Feb. 9, 2022.

According to business filings on the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website, the Festival of Sail’s organizer at the time, First Day Events, was incorporated Sept. 9, just before Mayor Swanson urged the council to support bringing the festival to Two Harbors. Mayor Swanson’s daughter, Ashleigh Swanson, is listed as the incorporator, along with the family’s Two Harbors home address. First Day Events’ Two Harbors mailing address is also the same as Garage Starts and PureDriven; the mayor served as the CEO of those two companies.

Tim Costley. "Memorandum of Opinion: Mayor Communications and Activities." City of Two Harbors. March 27, 2022.

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City Attorney Tim Costley’s memorandum of opinion detailed Swanson’s repeated use of his official city position “for personal benefit or business interests.” Although it was not posted online and it has not yet been addressed by the City Council, one copy was available for public review at City Hall and was photographed by the News Tribune and published to its website, giving the public at least six weeks to review it before it’s expected to be discussed in a City Council meeting.

Related Topics: CHRIS SWANSON
Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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