With all the attention given recently to the Republican-endorsed candidate for the Minnesota Supreme Court, Michelle MacDonald, it may surprise people to learn that her opponent, David Lillehaug, has also been involved in what should be considered a political and ethical scandal. It began two years before Justice Lillehaug was appointed to the court by Gov. Mark Dayton.
In June 2011, Dayton was embroiled in the political fight of his life, presiding over the longest government shutdown in state history. He announced the hiring of Lillehaug — his longtime friend and personal lawyer, and a former DFL U.S. Senate candidate — to help navigate the legal issues around the shutdown. The governor’s news release noted that Lillehaug would be hired “pro bono,” and made specific mention that this meant “without cost to the state.”
Two months later, the governor decided to pay Lillehaug’s firm $77,000 for that counsel. This would be fine, except he didn’t tell anyone. Dayton chose to spend taxpayer money on outside legal help without any public statement, without notice to the Legislature and without a word to the press. The original news release (http://tinyurl.com/k2wjch4) announcing Lillehaug’s pro bono hiring remains on the governor’s website even today. It does not contain any correction or special notation to tell us it is no longer true.
To make matters worse, Dayton’s Department of Management and Budget released a report (http://tinyurl.com/ntdfddw) on the full costs of the state shutdown in November 2011. Notably absent from this report was the $77,000 expense for Lillehaug’s legal services. When I asked the governor’s office about the omission, I was told the expenses were not on the report because they hadn’t been paid yet. That claim was disproved when the Star Tribune obtained copies of the legal invoices showing some had been paid before the report was released.
On March 26, 2013, Dayton appointed Lillehaug to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The news release announcing the appointment (http://tinyurl.com/pp9uwhw) even references Lillehaug’s work for Dayton during the 2011 shutdown. Neither Dayton nor Lillehaug disclosed the $77,000 payment. Everyone assumed the work was pro bono.
No one knew about the payments until they were discovered in a routine audit of the governor’s office by Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles in January 2014. Nobles raised a technical issue with how the payments were recorded. I raised an ethical issue regarding the fact that the payments had been kept secret and left off a comprehensive financial report on the shutdown. My inquiries were first ignored by the governor, and when I pressed further, the response was condescending and vague references. If it weren’t for Nobles’ audit, we still would have no knowledge of the payments.
Before Election Day, Dayton should have to answer questions about these payments. Why did he keep information about them from the public? Why were they left out of the official state shutdown report?
Lillehaug also must answer one very important question to Minnesotans: Why didn’t he disclose these payments from the man who was about to appoint him to the highest court in Minnesota?
Minnesotans do not like being lied to. We expect honesty and transparency. Until Gov. Dayton and Justice Lillehaug explain the absence of public information about these payments, their behavior raises questions about the ethical standards of both men.
When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie became embroiled in a scandal after shutting down a bridge and causing traffic jams for no apparent reason, he admitted responsibility and fired two high-level staffers. We must demand the same standards of accountability in Minnesota.
The criticisms of Lillehaug’s opponent are absolutely fair, and I share many of those concerns. But there are two people in this race. As a legislator responsible for holding the other branches of government in check, I share a duty with voters to investigate them both.
David Osmek, R-Mound, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.