A key advisory council charged with helping distribute state Legacy funds has recommended unanimously giving $10.8 million to an outdoor group that features a council member on its weekly TV show.
Eight months after the Minnesota House appointed popular outdoors enthusiast Ron Schara to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which has been questioned previously for potential conflicts, Schara was part of a unanimous vote this week to recommend the funding for Pheasants Forever. Schara is the on-air host and executive producer of "Pheasants Forever Television," a weekly program now in its seventh season.
Schara gets no money from Pheasants Forever. Instead, he said, he is paid to write scripts and appear on the program by Ron Schara Productions, a company he no longer owns. The company also takes no money from Pheasants Forever, although the group has editing control over the program.
As a Heritage Council member, Schara voted in favor of each of the group's three funding requests. On one, in which Pheasants Forever sought $5 million, Schara wrote "badly needed" and gave the project the highest score of any of the council's 12 members.
In August, Schara -- a former Star Tribune outdoors writer -- filed a statement with the council saying he had no actual or perceived conflicts. The council's executive director agreed with Schara.
"I might be on their TV show, but I get no money from them, no direction from them," said Schara, who is a Pheasants Forever life member. "You're barking up an empty tree," Schara said to a reporter in explaining his roles.
Phil Krinkie, a former Republican legislator and now president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said Schara's dual roles are another illustration that "the whole makeup of the council is rotten." Krinkie helped lead the unsuccessful effort in 2008 to defeat the Legacy amendment, which increased the state sales tax for a quarter-century to provide an annual stream of money for outdoors, clean water, parks and trails and arts projects.
"Even if there's no compensation received, the point is that it raises ethical questions," said Krinkie, who said Schara "represents" Pheasants Forever regardless of whether he is paid by them. "What is this, you know, the Chicago mob?" Krinkie said. "The whole thing stinks."
The Legislature in July tightened conflict-of-interest rules for those helping to disperse hundreds of millions annually in Legacy sales tax money, but the official definition of a conflict remains blurry. Conflict rules for the Lessard-Sams Council, which is now recommending how $95 million for outdoors projects should be spent next year, state that simply belonging to a group asking for money is a not a conflict.
But the council's rules also state that a member can have an "organizational conflict" when a vote "present[s] the appearance that it will be difficult for the person to impartially fulfill the person's duty."
Both Schara and Pheasants Forever insist there is no problem.
Schara said he had briefed his council colleagues on his Pheasants Forever work, and "none of them thought I had" a conflict.
Making matters more complicated, state officials are urged to consider "varying interests, including hunting and fishing" when appointing members to the council -- the very same interests expected to make requests of the council.
"I think I probably belong to all of them. I know I belong to Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Minnesota Deer Hunters -- [it'd] be easier for me to pick the ones I don't belong to," said state Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, a council member who also is chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.
"I haven't seen where people are being flagrant," McNamara said of his colleagues on the council.
Bob St. Pierre, the vice president for marketing for Pheasants Forever, a national conservation group based in the Twin Cities, said the organization does not expect favors from Schara or the council. "If we entered a weak proposal, I am sure they would all vote against it," he said.
St. Pierre said that although he reviews and can edit the shows before they are aired, he does not frequently meet with Schara. "As host of this show, it's important he represent our brand properly. [But] outside of that, there's no connection there," said St. Pierre. "Ron is not privy to our organization's strategic plans."
In the latest round of funding requests, Pheasants Forever asked the council for $19.2 million for three projects. Schara recommended they receive $11.5 million.
Audit to be released
The Legislative Auditor will weigh in on Legacy spending in an audit to be released next month that also will explore conflict-of-interest issues.
"We are definitely going to be addressing that," said James Nobles, the state legislative auditor.
Earlier this year, another council member who voted for Pheasants Forever projects was cleared by the council of any conflict even though he was president of the Nobles County Pheasants Forever chapter and was named the group's statewide volunteer of the year.
Bill Becker, the executive director of the Lessard-Sams Council, said he reviewed Schara's situation and was confident there was no conflict. "I think that if it were shown he was getting a direct benefit from Pheasants Forever" there might be an issue, said Becker.
"You follow the money and there's no trail back to Schara."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673