After controversy erupted over last-second legislative changes to bolster fishing on a lake where he has a cabin, State Sen. Satveer Chaudhary admitted that he had "egg on my face.'' The trouble is that reaching into a carton of Extra-Large Grade AA's is starting to become a regular occurrence for the three-term DFLer from Fridley.
One of the most basic but critical obligations public officials have is to ensure that they do not use their offices to advance private interests. And yet the cabin brouhaha, which surfaced last week, is the second time in two years that Chaudhary's actions have raised troubling questions about whether he crossed that line.
In 2008, the Star Tribune reported that Chaudhary, an avid outdoorsman and TV host, was soliciting sponsorships for his Sportsman Channel show from Arctic Cat and North Central Regional Council of Carpenters. Chaudhary supported legislation favorable to both. A Senate ethics panel later that year ruled that this solicitation was not a conflict of interest, nor did it violate the Legislature's hole-filled gift ban. The statement afterward from the panel's chairman was hardly an exoneration. "I am not convinced that it rises to the level of condemnation,'' said State Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul.
But the state's laws and policies are designed only as guardrails against egregious behavior. It's impossible to legislate against every conceivable ethical dilemma so public officials' self-policing -- their good judgment -- remains key. Unfortunately, Chaudhary's 2008 ethics adventure seems to have taught him that technically adhering to the law is good enough.
That was in evidence Wednesday when Chaudhary spoke to an editorial writer about the ill-advised lake lobbying, which involved special language benefiting Fish Lake Reservoir in northeast Minnesota. Chaudhary agrees that it was a mistake to rush onto the House floor and get Rep. David Dill to add the language to the massive fish and game bill moments before Dill persuaded the House to approve it (Gov. Tim Pawlenty just vetoed the bill). At the same time, Chaudhary repeatedly stated that no one has accused him of wrongdoing and emphasized that he'd disclosed the cabin's location.
The reality is that four of Chaudhary's Republican Senate colleagues have requested an "advisory recommendation" from the Senate's ethics panel. This newspaper supports that panel's decision to hold a hearing. The GOP lawmakers raise valid concerns about the timing of Chaudhary's disclosure, which they claim was made late at night to members of a conference committee as it gave final approval to the bill and neglected to mention he'd lobbied the House for it. Chaudhary said Wednesday that he'd welcome a review.
Still, Chaudhary doesn't seem to understand why there's controversy. Told the obvious -- that special treatment for his vacation home's lake doesn't pass the smell test -- Chaudhary argued again that he broke no law and that this was simply a conservation measure to benefit everyone. That tone-deaf response makes Chaudhary's apologies for the lake lobbying ring hollow. Chaudhary is scheduled to face constituents at 7 p.m. today at the Fridley Community Center. Citizens deserve more than an explanation. They should demand solid assurance that future flaps won't divert Chaudhary from their needs.