I think I know garbage when I smell it, and if you were near the Hennepin County Board meeting last Tuesday, you might have caught a faint whiff.

Great River Energy was on last Tuesday’s agenda of the county’s Public Works, Energy and Environment Committee, seeking a new five-year, $27 million contract. Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a DFLer, is the chair of the committee. McLaughlin’s wife, Nancy Hylden, is listed as a lobbyist for the company, which hired her in 2009, the same year he became chair of the committee. (In business circles they call that “synergy.”)

In a Star Tribune story about the potential conflict on Monday, Hylden said that she initially provided some “strategic counsel,” but hasn’t actually done work for them for some time.

Hylden told our reporter that she has never lobbied her husband. McLaughlin must be one lucky man.

I have 25 years of experience in the marriage racket, and I came to the conclusion long ago that the union is nothing if not a series of long and arduous lobbying sessions in which I am almost always the loser.

It’s a good thing I’m not a county commissioner and my wife is not a lobbyist for a garbage firm, because this is how our evenings at home would play out:

“Honey, would you take out the garbage?”


“Honey, can we go out for dinner?”


“Honey, can you vote for a $27 million contract for my client?”

You see where this is going.

As for why McLaughlin doesn’t disclose his wife’s relationship to Great River Energy, he said: “I don’t need to reveal that — she hasn’t ever tried to influence me on these things, so there’s nothing that would require a declaration, or worse yet, denying my residents my participation on these matters that affect how much they pay for garbage.”

As a taxpaying resident of Hennepin County, Commissioner, I would love to see you deny me your participation on this issue because, like garbage, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

Minnesota laws are horrible in forcing transparency on conflicts of interest, so McLaughlin is not doing anything illegal or unethical. But the reputation of politicians is hovering down around the level of journalists, so this thing called “the appearance of a conflict of interest” should ring bells for him.

(Disclosure: Hylden is also a lobbyist for this newspaper. See how that works?)

Is it just me, or do DFLers seem to be racing to see who can appear the most bumptious lately, from the mayoral candidates reneging on promises to drop out, to the pizza party play to deny Mark Andrew mayoral endorsement, to this?

Phil Krinkie served in the Legislature for 16 years and was married to Mary Ramsey Krinkie, a lobbyist for a law firm that represented a variety of clients, and for the Minnesota Hospital Association.

Direct conflicts of interest rarely came up, but when they did, “there were a couple of times I felt I should recuse myself from voting,” said Krinkie, a Republican.

Krinkie was one of the Legislature’s biggest fiscal conservatives, so the couple’s goals were often at odds:

“She was trying to get money for her clients, and I was looking to reduce government spending, so there weren’t many conflicts.”

Spousal connections in the Legislature are diluted by sheer numbers. A lone representative is not likely to swing a vote that benefits a lobbyist’s wife, Krinkie said.

“One question should be: Is your vote going to be a key determination on the issue?” he said.

There is no accusation that McLaughlin’s votes made a difference in the garbage issue; in fact, the county’s costs have gone down.

“There should be a sense of transparency,” Krinkie said.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s husband lobbied for the Minnesota Historical Society while she was in office.

“I took a very similar stance as then-Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty took at the time when First Lady Mary Pawlenty was on the judicial bench,” Kelliher said in an e-mail. “We both excused ourselves from direct issues dealing with what could be seen as a conflict. That became harder when I was speaker but I did my best to separate any issues out.”

Kelliher and Pawlenty went beyond the required disclosure, an indication the rules need to be stronger for all public bodies. Until then, it’s a good idea to disclose and recuse.

Oh, and never negotiate the garbage with your wife.