Hennepin County commissioner has voted on contracts tied to wife’s law firm.
The contracts are with Great River Energy, which owns the Elk River processing plant where Hennepin County sends garbage to be converted into electricity. The company retained McLaughlin’s wife, Nancy Hylden, and her law-firm colleague Richard Forschler, as lobbyists in the fall of 2009 as Great River made a desperate pitch to keep the county’s business.
Hylden said that while she initially provided some “strategic counsel” on energy issues, she’s never lobbied her husband — and hasn’t worked for Great River in years, although she continues to register herself as a lobbyist with the company in the interest of disclosure. Forschler, who works with her at Faegre Baker Daniels, took the lead in setting up meetings between Great River and county commissioners, including McLaughlin.
McLaughlin defended his votes on the contracts, noting that he even fought to push down Great River’s rates.
As for disclosure, he said: “I don’t need to reveal that — she hasn’t ever tried to influence me on these things, so there’s nothing that would require a declaration, or worse yet, denying my residents my participation on these matters that affect how much they pay for garbage.”
A new five-year agreement with Great River is on Tuesday’s agenda of the county’s Public Works, Energy and Environment Committee, which McLaughlin chairs. The contract is worth $27 million, but Great River could receive less because the county pays only per ton shipped.
While McLaughlin’s actions appear to be legal, the dealings shine a light on Minnesota’s vague requirements on conflicts of interest and lobbying disclosures.
The law says that officials taking action on a matter that would “substantially affect the official’s financial interests or those of an associated business” must submit a written statement describing the nature of the potential conflict of interest to a superior. But the regulations don’t offer many specifics, and omit detailed guidance in the case of a spouse’s relationship.
“Our statute is very weak,” said Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
He said a bill that would have outlined clearer, more substantive conflict of interest rules went nowhere in the 2013 Legislature. He said the board was split on how much disclosure the state should require in the case of a spouse or child, but included the issues in the proposal in hopes of starting a vigorous debate.
Additionally, lobbyists doing business in Minnesota must register their clients’ names, but don’t have to disclose who they lobbied or what project they are working on.
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity last year gave Minnesota an “F” grade on its lobbying disclosure requirements.
Richard Painter, an ethics expert at the University of Minnesota School of Law, said it’s common for a politician’s spouse to be a lobbyist, but that on the federal level, citizens have access to more information about it.
In the matter of the Great River contract, Painter said, voters have a right to know about the commissioner’s connections so they can ask questions.
For decades, Hennepin County sent a portion of its garbage to an Elk River processing plant, paying more than $80 a ton. Concerns about the expense, among other things, led the county not to renew the 20-year contract when it expired in 2009. Great River, which owned a nearby power plant, began an effort to acquire the processing facility that year, but the company needed more municipal solid waste to keep both plants running. Anoka and Sherburne counties had also ended their contracts.
Great River, which provides wholesale electricity to 28 distribution cooperatives in the Midwest, converted the waste into what’s known as refuse-derived fuel at the processing plant.
Hylden and Forschler registered as lobbyists with Great River on Oct. 28, 2009. Hylden, who began a lobbying career long before marrying McLaughlin, made it clear that she wouldn’t lobby her husband, according to interviews. Hylden became a partner in the law firm in 2012.