A bipartisan Minnesota Senate ethics panel on Wednesday failed to resolve complaints against Democratic Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion for abuse of power.
The committee did not dismiss the complaints, but indefinitely postponed future hearings until state agencies finish their reviews.
Senate Republicans filed a complaint in October claiming that Hayden threatened the Minneapolis School District if it did not award a $375,000 grant to a community organization aimed at closing the achievement gap that has ties to his father. They also allege that Hayden misused federal money as a board member of Community Action of Minneapolis.
Hayden did not testify at the hearing, instead letting his attorney Charles Nauen speak for him. In the past, Hayden has strongly denied that he threatened the district or improperly benefited from his role with Community Action.
At the request of GOP senators, the school district submitted testimony from three school officials, including Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. Johnson said that Hayden and Champion were “strong advocates” for Community Standards Initiative. CSI eventually received the grant money, but then canceled the contract after its leaders admitting they were not able to meet the requirements for the money.
The committee also heard similar allegations against Champion, who emphatically denied making threats to the district.
“I want to be clear I did not bully, threaten or force MPS to enter into a contract with CSI,” Champion said.
The committee chair, Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, postponed any action indefinitely.
The committee had a three-hour debate over whether it should investigate Hayden’s role in Community Action.
The committee was divided evenly along party lines. The two DFL members, Pappas and Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, did not want to investigate either complaint. The two GOP members, Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, strongly argued for using the committee’s investigative power.
“We are not an investigatory body. I don’t have a level of comfort to do an investigation,” Pappas said. “If we just have a little patience, it’ll all come out.”
The committee voted to defer action until after the state Department of Commerce and other agencies complete their investigations into Community Action.
An audit released in August found that the agency’s executives misspent nearly $800,000 in taxpayer money on trips, a celebrity cruise and other nonbusiness spending. Senate Republicans asked the agency to release documents obtained during the audit.
Two representatives from the department said they cannot release the documents because they do not know if the documents should be public information.
Last week, the Star Tribune obtained a receipt showing that Community Action paid for round-trip airline tickets to New York for Hayden and his wife, Terri. It was unclear whether Community Action paid for any of Hayden’s other travel expenses. DHS auditors noted Hayden’s flight among a long list of spending by the group that “did not have a valid business purpose.”
Ingebrigtsen directly asked Hayden if Community Action paid for his New York trip.
“We are happy to answer that question once the investigation is complete,” Nauen said. “Until then, it’s unfair to my client.”