Imagine you’re a small-business owner in Minnesota. Maybe you’re a Realtor, run a repair shop or own a convenience store. You pay your bills, your taxes and your employees, with some left over to provide for your family.

One day, you get a call from a government agency saying you’re being investigated, not based on complaints from your customers, but from competitors who want to put you out of business.

It seems unimaginable, but that’s the reality right now in our state, thanks to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. And most business owners don’t have the resources to take on a powerful government agency.

It’s only as a result of two recent court cases fought by Safelite — a company that does have the means to push back against unethical regulators — that we now know how the Commerce Department under Commissioner Mike Rothman really operates.

A U.S. District Court ruling against the Commerce Department earlier this year will outrage anyone who takes the time to read it (“State must pay $1M in legal fees,” Aug. 26). The behavior described in the judge’s decision can only be described as inappropriate, unethical and a total abuse of the power entrusted to the department.

Judges cited the department’s unwillingness to follow the law, criticized its sharing of confidential investigative information with Safelite’s competitors and questioned its interest in protecting consumers. There was even testimony that a Commerce Department official made a “deal” with competitors to provide information that would “get Safelite out of Minnesota.” When Safelite didn’t cave, the Commerce Department went after other companies that work with Safelite.

In a sure sign the department’s behavior was indefensible, the federal court ordered Commerce to pay nearly $1 million in legal costs.

Despite losing at each legal step, the department continues to waste millions of public dollars in attorney fees and legal expenses.

When asked about the court rulings, Rothman offers only non sequiturs and rehearsed banalities about his pride in the department’s work. Never mind that a federal judge openly wondered whether the Commerce Department is really interested in protecting consumers.

Why do they operate like this? Because it’s not they but taxpayers who are forced to foot the bill for their reckless behavior.

This is not just about one company or one industry. I’ve heard from many smaller businesses about the Commerce Department threatening to shut them down or take away their license over minor or nonexistent infractions. When a government agency has a virtually infinite legal budget and no regard for the limits of law, its threats are potent. Word spreads quickly that you should settle early or be prepared for hell.

Gov. Mark Dayton is Rothman’s boss. Back in February, I asked the governor to personally review the court rulings against the department, hold accountable those responsible for documented unethical behavior and restore Minnesotans’ faith in the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

Six months later, I still haven’t heard back. In the real world, this type of behavior would beget an immediate dismissal. In government, it begets silence.

What message does this send to ordinary citizens, let alone those interested in doing business in our state? Can they trust the Commerce Department to be a fair and neutral arbiter, looking out for the best interests of Minnesota consumers? I fear that right now the answer is no.

How can you trust a government agency whose leadership quite literally made a “deal” with a competitor to drive a private company out of business? How can you trust a government agency that continues — despite crystal-clear court rulings — to deny any wrongdoing and harass companies using the legal system? How can you trust a government agency that refuses to recognize any limits to its power?

If Dayton can’t take my word for it, I hope he’ll take the word of an Obama-appointed U.S. District Court judge, right this wrong and let Minnesotans know this type of behavior will not be tolerated in his administration.

 

Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, is a member of the Minnesota House.