Minnesota gets D- grade in 2015 State Integrity Investigation

Squeaky clean image hides a nest of ethical problems

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On a grueling final day of the legislative session last May, Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt breezed through the final language of a major budget bill, passing motions at the pace of an auctioneer as his colleagues cried in vain for a copy of the legislation.

“Mr. Speaker, it’s 93 pages long and nobody in this body has gotten a copy of it,” said Democratic Rep. Melissa Hortman. “We have no idea what’s in this bill.”

Seated under a gold-leafed statue depicting “Lady Minnesota” alongside pioneers and American Indian leaders, the Republican speaker ignored their pleas and called for a vote, which prevailed with overwhelming approval. The thump of his mallet carried across the chamber to signal a done deal.

Though brief, those two minutes of the 2015 session provided an illuminating  public window into the inner workings of the Legislature; procedures that include last-minute deal making, closed-door negotiations and convoluted ethics protocols.

Some journalists and government watchdogs say that chaotic moment was representative of a systematic failure of transparency in state government — a “perfect storm of little problems” said Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, an advocacy group.

Those cumulative failures earned Minnesota a grade of D-, ranking it 28th in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.

That’s little change from the project’s first go-round in 2012, when the state earned a D+. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.

Minnesota has always run in the middle of the pack when it comes to ethics and openness in state government, with leaders often praising the Midwestern state for its dearth of scandal.

But the absence of such moral blunders doesn’t necessarily equate to a squeaky-clean record. In fact, some advocates of greater oversight say that the lack of such public corruption allows the state to maintain the status quo.

Behind closed doors

Minnesota’s legislative branch is not required to adhere to the state’s Government Data Practices Act – a series of mandates governing the disclosure of public information. Instead, the state House and Senate have their own set of rules governing how and when they give the public access to their meetings and documents.

While state law requires that nearly all executive branch and local government meetings are open to the public, legislative rules say meetings must be open to the public only if a quorum is present and the group intends to take action on an issue within its jurisdiction. The effect is that small groups of legislators can meet in private to discuss legislation without needing to inform the public.

Last May, for example, representatives from both parties met quietly to discuss a surprise provision to strip the state auditor’s office of its local auditing responsibility. The bill was passed and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton in May.

“The fact is, the work that gets done and the horse trading that goes on, always goes on behind closed doors,” said Mark Haveman, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization.

This past year seemed more troubling than previous ones, said Democratic House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Thissen. “Behind the scenes discussions have always been part of the legislative process, but the process was much worse this year than in the past,” he said.

The revolving door of lobbyists

When Sen. David Tomassoni accepted a position with a local association of public schools in January, some of his colleagues questioned whether the move was appropriate.

The association lobbies on behalf of northern Minnesota schools located in the same district that Tomassoni represents at the legislature. But the Democratic senator denied that his $6,500 monthly salary posed a conflict of interest, saying he would not accept payment while the legislature was in session.

Some lawmakers didn’t agree. But the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, which is responsible for monitoring conflicts of interest, did. It determined that Tomassoni’s new position did not pose a conflict in and of itself, but that the senator should monitor issues as they arose to determine whether a given situation presented one.

The case revealed the overall weakness in how the legislature handles conflicts of interest, said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. Minnesota has no restrictions for outgoing public officials seeking private sector work, and 60 former lawmakers have taken lobbying positions since 2002, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

“Minnesota, which at one time was at the forefront of these issues, is now so entrenched that we’ve stood still in comparison with other states,” Schultz said.

Little oversight

At the center of it all is Minnesota’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, which has a broad set of responsibilities. Among its many tasks, the board is charged with auditing asset disclosure forms, monitoring gifts to public officials, processing lobbyist registrations and investigating alleged conflict of interest violations. But Schultz said fundamental flaws in the office’s structure restrict its abilities.

The board suffers from chronic understaffing and a fiscal dependence on the Legislature, for example. The result is that the board generally audits officials’ asset disclosure forms only when it’s tipped off to potential misconduct.

Gary Goldsmith, the board’s executive director, defended the practice, saying it’s in keeping with the state’s clean-government history. “I think that random audits would not be a good use of state resources,” he said.                                                                      

But the result is that most cases it investigates involve members of sparring political parties who file criticisms against one another, such as a 2013 complaint made by the state Republican Party accusing Democrats of violating a rule that governs how the party can coordinate its activities with individual candidates.

While the Board ultimately fined the Democrats $100,000 — one of the largest fines ever levied in the state according to the Star Tribune — it’s unclear if the board would have discovered the misconduct without a tip from the GOP.

Schroeder, of Common Cause Minnesota, said the inability to initiate audits is just a small part of a larger problem with the board, which he said isn’t able to ensure that the reports it receives are complete or detailed.  “We’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

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