Closed-door ethics query off the record - by mistake
- Article by: BRAD SCHRADE
- Star Tribune
- February 12, 2011 - 9:06 AM
For about three hours on Wednesday, a state recording system worked just fine while members of the Senate ethics panel met during a special meeting in St. Paul.
But when the four state lawmakers closed the doors to debate the fate of a complaint against one of their own, the system inexplicably failed, depriving the public of a record of what happened.
The critical breakdown happened after the committee kicked reporters and members of the public out of a hearing on a complaint against Republican Scott Newman, a freshman senator from Hutchinson. Newman was accused of violating the rules after his office sent an e-mail saying he wouldn't meet with anybody who supported his political opponent in last fall's election.
Altogether, 53 minutes of the closed-door session were not recorded. The system also failed during a limited portion of the public session.
"What we know right now is there was either an audio breakdown or a staff breakdown," said Michael Brodkorb, a spokesman for the GOP caucus and deputy chairman of the state Republican Party. "We don't know what happened at this point, but the audio wasn't picked up."
Like many lawmakers who serve on state ethics panels around the country, Minnesota legislators are allowed to call an executive session to privately discuss certain matters. But it's not mandatory to do so to hear complaints like the one involving Newman.
Before the private portion of the meeting started, the lawmaker who chaired the bipartisan panel -- Senate President Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville -- publicly vowed that there would be a recording of the closed-door session. Fischbach could not be reached at her Senate office Friday, but a GOP caucus spokesman said she felt it was "unfortunate that this happened."
During the closed-door session, the committee agreed not to investigate the complaint against Newman or call any additional witnesses, including the aide who allegedly wrote the e-mail. Newman testified in the public portion of the meeting. The committee also agreed to dismiss the complaint.
Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said it's unfortunate if the failed recording casts doubt on the committee's efforts.
"It wasn't our intent to be secretive," Sheran said. "It was to move through the process to get where we wanted to go."
Committee member, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said the unanimous vote should give the public confidence that everything was on the up-and-up. But he knows the blank recording will inevitably lead to questions. In the future, he hopes the committee allows public access unless there's a particularly sensitive issue to discuss.
"In general, let's keep it open," Ingebrigtsen said.
More than 40 states have legislative ethics panels that police the conduct of their own members, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of them have closed-door sessions during the initial phase of an ethics hearing, said Peggy Kerns, director of the group's ethics center.
"The movement across the country is for these types of actions to be more transparent," Kerns said. "These ethics committees are always balancing the right of the accused with the right of the public to know."
Brodkorb said Wednesday's incident was not an isolated failure. The Senate's committee recording system malfunctioned one other time this year and 34 times between 2007 and 2010. He said the technology seems dated.
"This has been a common problem," Broadkorb said. "You will see an effort by the leadership in the Senate to make sure this doesn't happen again."
He said additional training and possible equipment upgrades would be discussed.
Brad Schrade • 651-222-1636
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