In the Best Buy and state Senate affairs, differing degrees of accountability.
When I attended a meeting of the Minnesota Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct back in March, I had no idea I would soon have the opportunity to compare how the public and private sectors deal with "inappropriate relationships" between employees.
According to evidence submitted to the subcommittee, Deputy Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel, R-Edina, first learned in September 2011 of an inappropriate relationship between Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, and Michael Brodkorb, Senate Republican communications chief.
Three months went by while Michel reportedly sought advice -- from other senators, outside law firms, etc. -- and waited. Finally, in December, something forced the issue. Michel and three other senators met with Koch. She resigned from her leadership role the next day but not from the Senate.
The following day, Michel and three other senators held a news conference to share their knowledge of the reasons for Koch's sudden resignation. According to a transcript, Michel said "we think of Amy Koch as our sister" and referred to the "Senate family."
Ironically, he also made this statement: "Whether it's the public sector or private sector, it's pretty clear. That kind of relationship is inappropriate." This demonstrates that he understood the seriousness of the situation, at least on an abstract level.
That same Friday afternoon, a friend lured Brodkorb to a restaurant, where the secretary of the Senate informed him he was no longer employed by the body.
To summarize: All of the senators involved remained "employed" but were relieved of their former leadership positions. Koch apologized. Brodkorb, fired, has filed a lawsuit that threatens to expose other inappropriate relationships between senators and staff where the staff person is still employed.
Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, filed an ethics complaint against Michel in March for making misleading statements to the press as to when he actually learned of the relationship between Koch and Brodkorb. When the ethics subcommittee met for the first time to consider Pappas' compliant, there was no hint that a similar scandal was unfolding at Best Buy.
But by the time the panel met in April for the second and third time, Brian Dunn was no longer CEO of Best Buy. He had resigned "by mutual agreement" as the company's board of directors announced it would launch an investigation into allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a female employee. The probe would determine who knew and when, and whether company resources had been used to pursue the relationship.
Meanwhile, the bipartisan, four-member ethics panel deadlocked on all possible actions: do further investigation, dismiss the complaint or demand that Michel apologize to the Senate for misleading the public. Michel refused to consider apologizing voluntarily, as Koch had done.
In contrast, Best Buy launched its investigation and discovered that the chairman of the board and founder of the company, Richard Schulze, became aware of the "extremely close" personal relationship back in December and confronted Dunn about it, but did not tell the board of directors or human resources. He will resign as chairman effective June 21.
The female employee is still employed at Best Buy.
Sure, Best Buy has a board of directors. The Senate has no equivalent overseer of its conduct -- except a disinterested and disengaged public and an overwhelmed press corps, neither of which have the ability to hold individual senators accountable directly and immediately.
Best Buy has stockholders. The Senate has only the public at large, with diffuse and diverse interests.
Therein lies the problem. Senators are expected to police themselves. When they are so immersed in their ideological and partisan "families," however, they fail to remember it is the interests of the public they were elected to protect.
It is this extreme partisanship that disheartens citizen observers like me from believing we can make a difference or have any influence with our elected officials.
We see how this "family" dynamic has destroyed our elected officials' ability to see this situation, or any policy proposals, objectively, outside of "family," ideological or partisan contexts -- while demonstrating a hypocrisy that threatens the legitimacy and stability of our political system.