A Pawlenty appointee was paid partly with money raised by sales of Support Our Troops license plates. A House committee slashed $30,000 from the governor's office budget and directed that it be returned to the plate fund.
When Minnesota motorists paid out $30 apiece for "Support Our Troops" license plates, it's a good bet they had no idea they were supporting Lee Buckley, a political appointee of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Last year $30,000 from the license-plate fund was used to pay a portion of Buckley's salary. Buckley worked in Pawlenty's office as a $92,000 a year special adviser on faith and community services.
During budget hearings on Pawlenty's office budget this week, Sens. Steve Murphy, Don Betzold and other legislators were furious over what they saw as a siphoning off of the money and a deception to those who bought the plates thinking they were directly helping veterans organizations. By state law, money from the plates is split between the Department of Military Affairs for family members of deployed service members and the Department of Veterans Affairs for grants for homeless and needy veterans.
"For money that was supposed to go to fund things for veterans going to fund people in the governor's office, it's outrageous," said Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, a Marine veteran. "The governor runs around telling everyone he's cutting all these budgets, and then he back-door fills in his own department. I'm just disgusted with this."
Later in the week, a House committee slashed $30,000 from the Republican governor's office budget and directed that it be returned to the Support Our Troops plate fund.
"Is this $30,000 being used for our troops and our veterans or is it just a pass-through that is then just being used in the governor's office? I have deep reservations about utilizing this money in that way," said Rep. Kory Kath, DFL-Owatonna, who introduced an amendment to put the money back in the plate account.
Although several Republican members of the committee raised questions, the amendment passed unanimously, reflecting the strong sentiment in support of anything veteran-related at the Capitol. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, pledged to hold a hearing on the funds, and Betzold, DFL-Fridley, an Army veteran, suggested that the legislative auditor investigate.
Adding mystery -- and perhaps a little outrage -- to the story: Buckley's job was eliminated by Pawlenty's office last year. She left the job in December and now earns $85,000 working for the Department of Corrections. The governor's office has no plans to fill the vacancy.
In addition to the $10 plate fee and an $8.50 filing fee, motorists seeking the Support Our Troops plates make a contribution of at least $30. The program began in late 2005 with the plates featuring an eagle named Harriet in front of a flowing American flag. The Support Our Troops plate has been one of the more successful specialty license plates, generating almost $930,000 in revenue last year.
Worked with veterans
Brian McClung, a spokesman for Pawlenty's office, said the Department of Veterans Affairs made the decision to use money from the plates to fund a portion of Buckley's salary. Asked for specifics about what Buckley accomplished, McClung said the office was created to improve connections between state government and faith communities.
"Part of Lee's duties included working with veterans and engaging the faith-based community to assist veterans, particularly the large number of Minnesota veterans returning from recent services overseas," McClung said.
Michael Pugliese, deputy commissioner of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Pawlenty's policy adviser contacted him about using Buckley's services, and Pugliese said he thought it was an opportunity to use her contacts to reach out to some of the more than 60 percent of veterans who do not seek benefits. During her one-year contract, Buckley was involved in the military reintegration process and helped to start a military child-of-the-month program, he said. She also was able to connect more veterans to homeless programs and to the department's claims office for assistance in securing federal benefits, he said.
"It was definitely a good return on our investment, and I would do it again," said Pugliese, who dismissed the criticism as cynical politics. "Whenever you hold up veterans and yell loud enough, it gets people's attention, and that's what they are doing. I think it's shameful."
Half of Buckley's salary was to be paid through the governor's office, 25 percent from the Department of Corrections and 25 percent from Veterans Affairs. Buckley could not be reached for a comment.
St. Louis Park resident Nancy Gertner, who purchased Support Our Troops plates when they first became available, said she feels betrayed by the revelations of how a portion of the money from the program was used. A Navy veteran who volunteers with several veterans organizations, she said she crossed paths with Buckley only twice, both times at events in the weeks before general elections. Gertner, who also is a member of the DFL Veterans Caucus, said she has never seen Buckley at any of the more than two dozen veterans events she attended in the past three years.
"Those of us who have the license plates, we feel like we are doing something to support Minnesota programs for veterans and military families," Gertner said. "It's feeling like the trust might be violated if these funds are used for something that might be borderline or outside what we think of us as being the focus of supporting veterans and military families."
Criticism over diverting funds from the Support Our Troops plate fund is new. But Pawlenty's use of funding from other agencies for his own office budget -- even as he cut funds to other agencies -- has drawn legislative ire before. While the use of so-called interagency agreements (in which staff members in the governor's office are paid by other departments) had occurred in Gov. Arne Carlson's administration, Pawlenty has utilized the process far more aggressively than any other governor.
Since Pawlenty took office in 2003, more than $1 million has gone to other state departments to pay for his senior policy advisers, none of whom have a desk, a chair or even a nameplate in the buildings that house the agencies paying their salaries.
The Support Our Troops funds were utilized under a provision the Legislature passed last year that created a special revenue account of up to $702,000 that authorized state agencies to use to fund interagency agreements with the governor's office.
"State agencies and our office have closely followed the agreement passed just last year by the Legislature regarding interagency agreements," McClung said.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434