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The Senate on Thursday confirmed bus company owner Charlie Zelle as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) despite concerns that his business ties could pose a conflict of interest.
Zelle's confirmation came after he signed an unusual four-page statement assuring legislators that he's no longer managing Jefferson Lines and wouldn't participate in state decisions over whether to award it government contracts.
"Zelle will recuse himself from any and all participation in the transactions," his statement said.
The confirmation came on a voice vote, but not until several members voiced concerns about his business interests.
Jefferson Lines provides inter-city bus service and has been credited with serving small cities in Minnesota and elsewhere. It has received federal grants that are distributed by MnDOT.
"It could be a conflict of interest," said Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud. "A fair question ... is how he might separate himself from the distribution of these grants."
"There is, if not the reality, the perception of a potential conflict of interest," agreed Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth.
But Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the Transportation and Public Safety Committee, called Zelle a "business leader" with special knowledge about transportation. And Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said Zelle hadn't done anything that could be called a conflict.
"There's not a conflict of interest until there is a conflict of interest," Cohen said.
In picking Zelle for MnDOT commissioner, Gov. Mark Dayton emphasized his bus business background.
"Charlie Zelle's outstanding record of innovation in the private sector will serve Minnesota well, as we build a transportation system, which will serve our needs and support our future growth and prosperity," Dayton said in December.
Zelle, in his statement, said he has resigned as CEO of Jefferson Lines but will continue as chairman of its board of directors. Reinert said he has encouraged Zelle to consider leaving the board in the future.
While Pederson raised concerns about a potential conflict, he supported Zelle's confirmation but urged senators to be vigilant for any future conflict.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504