Legislator eschews committee work fearing conflicts of interest

  • Updated: March 6, 2008 - 9:43 PM

Serving in the Senate while holding down a second public job continues to be a challenge for Julianne Ortman.

Julianne Ortman's dual role as state senator and high-ranking Hennepin County Sheriff's Office official was on display again Thursday.

Ortman asked a Senate ethics subcommittee for an opinion on whether she had a conflict of interest in sponsoring legislation on mortgage foreclosures and expunging criminal records, two issues that affect the sheriff's office, her employer.

The subcommittee unanimously declared that it could find no conflict. "I don't believe there's a conflict of interest at all here," said Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, the subcommittee chairman.

The decision came a year after Ortman, R-Chanhassen, was in the spotlight for working full time at Hennepin County and missing meetings at the State Capitol.

Ortman acknowledged Thursday that she had stepped down from the Senate Economic Development Budget Division this session because of her sheriff's office work, family commitments and the fact the panel had an "extra" member. The move came after she had tried, without success, to be removed from the Senate Transportation Committee for some of the same reasons.

"I would say that it's a personal review of what I can do and what I can't do," she said in explaining why she sought to be removed.

Ortman said she is now working part-time at the sheriff's office as the finance director while the Legislature is in session.

Her request to be removed from the Transportation Committee came shortly before the session began. Last month, the panel played a pivotal role as a $6.6 billion transportation bill was ushered toward approval. Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said he opposed Ortman's removal.

"You get elected, you get assigned to committees. We don't do that," he said. "She wanted to be on the transportation committee. It was one of her top choices."

'Feelings about conflict'

Last year, records showed Ortman sometimes moved quickly between her state Senate seat and her job with Sheriff Rich Stanek. Records showed she would at times begin one job just minutes after officially punching out from the other.

Ortman said Thursday that she has maintained her Senate attendance this year, and that her service to her constituents has not been compromised. She said she missed a Senate Tax Committee meeting Wednesday because of a "bad snow day" and had missed the Senate's vote on a bonding bill the day before because she had taken a vacation day.

In addition, Ortman said she had not voted on a proposal to compensate victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse because of her sheriff's office work related to the collapse. "I personally had a difficult time trying to make a decision in that case objectively, having served at the bridge and having to meet families of the victims," she said.

Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said Ortman had also talked to him about being removed from the Transportation Committee because of the bridge collapse. "She had some feelings about conflict ... in the aftermath of the bridge," said Senjem, "and ultimately wanted to get off [the committee]."

Ortman downplayed her request to be removed from the committees. She said Murphy and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller had never been clear why her request could not be granted. Their actions, she said, had been "rather personal in nature."

Murphy denied that. "It's just business. I'm sorry she feels that way," he said.

After Thursday's ethics subcommittee meeting, Ortman told reporters she was pleased that the panel had agreed with her that there was no conflict in sponsoring legislation on issues related to the work of the sheriff's office.

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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