The fireworks involving a state oversight panel are not over, even after House and Senate Republicans suddenly backed away from firing Susan Thornton as director of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).
Thornton said she was sent an e-mail Friday -- and had a letter placed on her office chair -- telling her that her dismissal had been "suspended." Her attorney said Monday that he and Thornton, whose last day was to have been today, were exploring legal action over what has occurred.
Republicans declined to comment on why they had changed course. Two key members of the LCCMR, meanwhile, said they were asking state Attorney General Lori Swanson to see whether the panel's citizen members and an environmental trust fund the panel oversees might be exposed legally by what had transpired.
The LCCMR is a 17-member panel that recommends how money from the trust fund, which gets state lottery proceeds, is spent for environmental and natural resources projects.
Jeff Broberg, the commission's co-vice chair, and Nancy Gibson, its co-chair, said Monday they believed the firing had stemmed from Thornton, as part of her job, insisting that those receiving money be accountable for how it was spent.
Broberg said Republicans, since gaining a House majority last year, had also appointed new members to the LCCMR who were "designed to create dysfunction" on the panel. Gibson added that the Republicans' new focus for the panel was an attempt to curtail science-based decisions in funding projects.
The letter saying Thornton's termination was suspended was signed by House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, the president of the Senate. A spokeswoman for Zellers -- who with Fischbach approved the original termination -- said Monday that House Republicans would not comment on "personnel matters."
The saga began last month when Thornton, the LCCMR's director since 2008, was told she would be fired. Adding to the confusion has been a question as to whether legislators had the authority to let her go. Her attorney, Vince Louwagie, said only the commission could do that.
Last year, the LCCMR received 241 applications for the money, and gave roughly $25 million to 74 applicants.
Gibson said that, because of the controversy and a push by House Republicans to change the LCCMR's overall focus, there is now a lot of uncertainty. Applicants for the money, she said, were asking, "Do we apply? Do we even bother?"
A week ago, House Republican spokeswoman Jodi Boyne said Republicans simply want the money to go to "more on-the-ground conservation and habitat projects" such as aquatic invasive issues and chronic wasting disease.
Broberg also said Monday that Thornton's problems could also be traced to an episode last summer when Ducks Unlimited, a prominent outdoors group, returned $136,840 to the commission after Thornton objected that the group was commingling money it got from Minnesota with money from other states. Tom Landwehr, the state Department of Natural Resources commissioner, was critical of how Thornton handled the episode.
Despite the decision not to fire Thornton, Broberg said he doubted her job status was secure. "I don't think there's any way that Susan gets a fair review from the guys that already told her she's fired," he said.
But Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who co-chairs the LCCMR, said he expected the panel "will move on from here."
On whether he could work with Thornton, he replied: "I think we should be able to work together. That's not going to be a problem -- shouldn't be a problem. It's not going to be a problem for me."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673