Minnesota earns ‘F’ for judicial financial disclosure

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The Center for Public Integrity evaluated the disclosure rules for judges in the highest state courts nationwide. The level of disclosure in the 50 states and the District of Columbia was poor, with 43 receiving failing grades, making it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench. Despite the lack of information in the public records, the Center’s investigation found nearly three dozen conflicts, questionable gifts and entanglements among top judges around the country. Here’s what the Center found in Minnesota:

Strengths:

Minnesota is toughening its requirements starting next year, meaning its lousy grade will undoubtedly improve. Legislation passed this year will require judges to file an additional form that other state officials already file. The form will ask judges to report investments, locally owned real estate and even involvement in horse racing starting in January 2014. But the new requirements will be phased in over six years, said Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.

Weaknesses:

Currently, Minnesota is at the back of the pack for financial disclosure requirements, ranking 45th in the country along with Iowa. The state is one of just three that does not release financial disclosure reports to the public except when requested in person. It has a self-policing system for enforcing the disclosure rules, in which Supreme Court justices would be asked to rule on a complaint about themselves. And the state currently does not require judges to report gifts, investments such as stocks or any financial debts on the one-page form. Court communications director John Kostouros said the state is less prone to corruption than say, Illinois or New York. “You really have to watch public officials in those states,” Kostouros said. “Minnesota has a very low tolerance for corruption.”

Highlights:

NFL Hall of Famer and former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page, now a Supreme Court Justice, is not required to report his involvement in the Page Education Foundation, which has accepted donations from groups that have come before the court. At least 20 law firms, for example, gave the foundation more than $1,000 in the 2011 fiscal year, according to the foundation’s annual report. Several of them subsequently brought cases before the court, according to a review by the Center. Page’s involvement with the foundation has been questioned multiple times in the past, resulting in guidance from the state’s Judicial Standards Board on how to run the foundation without jeopardizing his work on the bench. Following that advice, Page told the Center he does not participate in any fundraising for the organization. Neither he nor any members of his family earn any income from the Page Foundation. “The Foundation has a policy prohibiting discussion of donors in my presence,” Page wrote the Center. “In conjunction with that policy I am not involved with and do not know who the Foundation solicits for contributions. To the extent that I inadvertently learn the name of a donor that is a factor I would consider in any recusal decision I might have occasion to make.”