State Sen. Sean Nienow used to give out something he called the “dirty diaper award” for things that just didn’t smell right.
I know we are early into the 2015 session, but I think there are already two strong contenders: Sen. David Tomassoni and, fittingly, Nienow himself.
It’s a promising start to the new year, but a little premature to proclaim this “the session of hubris.” The cases are very different, but alike in that they show legislators have an inspiring ability to hold their government jobs while seeking more government money to complement their arguably paltry salaries.
Both cases also illustrate that when it comes to gauging public perception, politicians are different from the rest of us.
Let’s start with Tomassoni, DFL-Chisolm, who acknowledged this week that he had taken a job as executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS), which lobbies his Legislature on behalf of the Iron Range.
We’re not done.
Tomassoni is also the chairman of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), a state agency that gives grant money to RAMS, which Tomassoni will now run.
It’s like a never-ending Chinese knot of funding. And conflicts.
Tomassoni doesn’t see the problem, however.
“It is legal and it’s not a conflict of interest,” he said. “I won’t be different from any other legislator who has issues, such as a farmer voting on farm issues or a lawyer voting on court issues, or a teacher voting on K-12 issues.”
Furthermore, Tomassoni said his board could hire a lobbyist who would report to them.
Nonsense. Anybody who lobbies for an organization that’s built to lobby will answer, inevitably, to the executive director.
In 2013, Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, took a job as director of state legislative policy for a company that likewise lobbied the Minnesota Legislature. After the news broke, Gottwalt resigned as state representative and kept the lobbying job.
Last year in Red Wing, Mayor Dennis Egan tried to keep his position after taking a job as a lobbyist for a frac sand company. The issue of sand trucks driving in and around the city was a hot topic at the time. The mayor’s excuse was similar to Tomassoni’s: It’s legal.
Residents were incensed. Egan resigned as mayor and took the lobbyist job.
The only thing stranger than Tomassoni’s glaring blind spot toward the appearance of a conflict of interest was the support offered voluntarily from two Republicans vouching for Tomassoni.
Now comes Nienow, R-Cambridge, whose campaign literature and rhetoric are filled with rants about welfare fraud and personal responsibility. He has repeatedly led the charge as well against giving handouts to businesses, and said we need to live within our means.
At the same time, we’ve known since last January that Nienow owed $840,000 on a Small Business Administration loan for a dubious-sounding business he bought that almost immediately failed. It appears he paid $613,000 to buy National Camp Association Inc., a service aimed at helping families find camps for children. He bought a name and a Rolodex, then apparently did nothing with them.
Guess who pays?
This week we learned that Nienow declared bankruptcy and last fall a judge relieved him of the $840,000 debt, 75 percent of which was covered by the federal government.
I guess that’s what he means by getting the government off our backs.
In all, the Nienows owed nearly $1 million to creditors. The bankruptcy is a sad document of financial collapse, and it’s hard not to sympathize with his plight. Nienow, who has seven children living at home, has $1,400 in savings and spends $382 more a month than he makes. The family income is reported at $2,600 per month.
If my math is right, Nienow qualifies for food stamps, something his party has repeatedly tried to curtail. The DEED cost of living calculator doesn’t even go up to a family of nine, but he clearly doesn’t make enough money to meet basic needs.
My sympathy wanes, however, when instead of accepting responsibility Nienow sounded like his business attempt was almost heroic.
“If people don’t take risks with businesses we don’t have an economy,” he said. “On paper, everything worked. Everything looked responsible.”
Reckless gambling with other people’s money is the easiest thing in the world. Nienow knows that because he was a business major, a financial adviser and a member of the Senate Finance Committee.
In a stroke of irony, the trustee in the bankruptcy case required that the Nienows take a course on financial management.
What perplexes me is that even while his own financial problems loomed the past few years, Nienow continued to loudly and publicly scold others for living large. Nienow also was a psychology major. I think they call this cognitive dissonance.
Meanwhile, I wonder if Nienow’s conservative colleagues are giving him the same advice they like to give “welfare mothers.”
Stop having children. Get rid of your $225 monthly cable and cellphone bill. Eliminate your reported $75 a month on “entertainment, clubs and recreation.”
Get a real job, preferably in the private sector.
I hear lobbying pays pretty well. I understand Tomassoni might have an opening soon.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin