State Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion have been in the news lately — and not for good reasons. One or both of the Minneapolis DFLers have been linked with various situations that raise conflict of interest and ethics questions. In recent years:
• They pushed (too vigorously, some alleged) for funding for Community Standards Initiatives (CSI), a group that said it could help more low-income African-American students graduate. The Minneapolis School District paid CSI a portion of a possible $375,000 before terminating the contract when the group failed to deliver.
• Hayden, who is deputy majority leader of the Senate, served on the board of Community Action, a 25-year-old nonprofit that served low-income families. It is now under scrutiny for questionable spending.
• More recently, reports surfaced that the pair urged funding for two Minneapolis Urban League education programs that failed to fulfill their purpose.
Investigations of each of these matters are underway. The Senate is conducting an ethics probe into whether Hayden and his wife improperly accepted trips from Community Action while serving on its board. The senator’s father, longtime community activist and nonprofit director, Peter Hayden, was also on the boards of two of the scrutinized groups.
This week, the state’s legislative auditor agreed to investigate whether the nonprofit Urban League double-billed the state and the Minneapolis School District for education programs that received more than $1 million in public funds since 2013.
The cumulative effect of these messy situations casts a cloud over Hayden’s and Champion’s judgment.
The senators are not the first — nor likely to be the last — elected officials to be entangled in such issues. Several lawmakers over the years seem to have lost their way where their associates and interests were personally involved in public policy and taxpayer funding decisions. This Editorial Board has taken others to task, on both sides of the aisle, for pushing ethical boundaries. Several have believed, for example, that it is somehow all right to work as lobbyists seeking public dollars while holding public office.
The argument often is “well, it’s perfectly legal.” But lawmakers must always be vigilant about avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. They must be keenly aware of how it is perceived when relatives, business associates, close friends or their employers can benefit financially from policy decisions they influence.
The senators declined to speak with an editorial writer this week, but their spokeswoman sent several background documents about how the program funding requests moved through the Legislature and school district.
In a counterpoint published on our pages in September, they wrote that they believe the programs whose funding they’ve supported have “the right idea” about how to remedy “the chronic disparity in academic achievement among students of color in Minneapolis …”
We’re not prejudging the results of the pending investigations. And concerns about the senators’ judgment in these situations don’t negate other good work they’ve done for their communities and constituents over the years. Still, the public expects those who decide how taxpayer dollars are spent to steer clear of potential conflicts of interest.