State Rep. Ilhan Omar, a DFL candidate for Congress, said Monday she would return $2,500 in speaking fees from two Minnesota community colleges after a GOP colleague criticized the payments.
“To address this concern, these honoraria will be returned to the institutions through their scholarship funds as soon as possible,” Omar said in a statement released by her office.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, noted at a news conference that Omar’s acceptance of money from the college speaking events was a violation of House rules. The rule in question says members can’t accept an honorarium for a service from an individual or organization that has a direct interest in the business of the House.
“I don’t like corruption in government, and neither do my constituents,” Drazkowski said.
A couple of months after she took office in early January 2017, Omar was paid to speak at Normandale Community College in February and Inver Hills Community College in April.
In her statement, Omar said the engagements were booked before she was elected in November 2016 and that she didn’t know she needed to apply House rules to previously confirmed engagements.
Omar said it’s “regrettable Rep. Drazkowski didn’t approach me directly with his concern so I could address this oversight.”
Omar is one of three leading DFLers running for an open Minneapolis-area congressional seat in the Aug. 14 primary. In June, she won the DFL Party endorsement for Congress. She’s running against fellow DFLers House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray.
The first Somali-American person elected to a state legislative seat in the U.S., Omar began to attract state and national media attention in August 2016 after she unseated a 44-year House incumbent in the DFL primary; she won the general election that November.
She is a member of the House committee that makes funding and policy decisions for Minnesota’s public colleges and universities.
Drazkowski, a six-term lawmaker, said he discovered the college fees after Omar filed a required Statement of Economic Interest on June 20 — months after the filing deadline, resulting in a $1,100 fine — and listed more than a dozen honorariums, including from the two community colleges in the Minnesota State colleges and universities system (formerly known as MnSCU). Omar also received $250 for travel expenses this year from Minnesota State University Mankato for speaking on a panel.
In an e-mail to campus leaders on July 11, Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said he had been notified that campuses had paid state legislators for engagements and instructed them to make sure it didn’t continue.
Asked Monday if he’s trying to oust Omar, Drazkowski said he’s just pointing out violations of the Minnesota House rules. Since the form was filed after the Legislature adjourned in May, Drazkowski said the House ethics committee couldn’t take action.
“Being a legislator is not supposed to be a transactional occupation and that just appears to be what we have here,” he said, before Omar announcing that she would repay the money.
It’s the second violation in a week that Drazkowski has lobbed at Omar. Last week, he filed a complaint with the state’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board accusing Omar of using campaign money to pay her divorce lawyer’s legal fees — a violation of state law. Omar and her attorney said last week that the allegation was false and the $2,250 fee Drazkowski was questioning was for legal services for crisis management, not her 2017 divorce.