(This post has been updated with comments from Tomassoni.)
Sen. David Tomassoni, facing criticism for taking a job as executive director of an organization that lobbies the Legislature, is being represented in the matter before a state board by Michael Ahern, an attorney with the firm Dorsey & Whitney.
Ahern is also a registered lobbyist whose clients could have significant interests before the Minnesota Senate and the committee of which Tomassoni is chairman, Senate Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Budget Committee. Ahern's clients include Atomic Recycling, Great Lakes Gas Transmission Co., Northern Border Pipeline Co., Northern Natural Gas, Northern Tier Energy and Randy's Environmental Services, according to the state's designated lobbyist list published Wednesday. According to the law firm's website, Ahern is chairman of the legislative practice group.
Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, has asked the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board for an advisory opinion on his taking a job as the executive director of Range Area Municipalities and Schools, or RAMS, which has interests before the Legislature and has traditionally lobbied on behalf of its members there.
Ahern is representing Tomassoni in the matter, his letterhead appearing in documents arguing that the senator's new job at RAMS does not constitute a conflict of interest. A draft opinion released by the board agreed with the Tomassoni position that merely taking the job is not a conflict of interest.
Answering questions from reporters about the RAMS job after a Senate session, Tomassoni said he hired Ahern because, "I know him. I trust him. He knows the campaign finance system, and why wouldn’t I hire a lawyer who knows what he’s doing and that I know and that I trust?"
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, already critical of Tomassoni's new dual role as senator and executive director of RAMS, said, "He can hire whomever he wants as his attorney, but it continues to raise questions about the judgment he is exercising."
Tomassoni said previously he won’t start in his new position until the end of the legislative session and will take an unpaid leave of absence during future legislative sessions. He will earn $45,000 per year for RAMS once the unpaid time is factored in.
Tomassoni said his dual role would only occasionally require him to recuse himself from voting. He said the job would be administrative, not lobbying, and that the RAMS board would hire a lobbyist if it so chose. The lobbyist would report to the board and not to him, he said.
He also previously said his new job would be no more a conflict of interest than a public school teacher voting on education issues.
Asked whether Tomassoni's new job would be examined by the Senate Ethics Committee, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said, "We’ve talked internally as a staff, and I guess we support the decision of the campaign finance board that the job itself doesn’t create a conflict."
He added: "The conflict of interest provisions I guess are more related to what kind of votes he might have to recuse himself from."