Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, has taken a job as executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools — a group that lobbies the Legislature on behalf of Iron Range Communities — though he will continue to serve in the Legislature.
Tomassoni is also the chairman of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, or IRRRB, a state agency funded mostly by mining revenue that is tasked with Range economic development and has in the past given grant money to the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools — the group Tomassoni now will lead as executive director.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said Monday he was considering filing an ethics complaint against Tomassoni for engaging in what he said was an obvious conflict of interest.
“When I first heard it, I thought it might be a joke. Do we need to spell it out for people that you cannot be a lobbyist and a senator at the same time?” Hann said in an interview.
Tomassoni, who has served in the Legislature since 1992, defends his decision to take the job with the group, known as RAMS. His hiring was first reported by the Mesabi Daily News.
Tomassoni said he had looked into the legal and ethical ramifications of taking the job and was comfortable in the dual role.
“It is legal and it’s not a conflict of interest. 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,” he said. As a “citizen Legislature,” Tomassoni said, legislators sometimes wear multiple hats.
Hann said that analogy doesn’t hold: “It’s very different,” he said. “When you are employed by an organization whose singular mission is to lobby, then that’s different from a teacher or Realtor or attorney or farmer.”
Tomassoni said 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.
According to organization tax forms filed with the IRS, the mission of RAMS is to “promote economic development and general welfare” of Range communities and school districts, including by “legislative lobbying.”
The Iron Range is known for its tight-knit political culture, with a small pool of influential elected officials and former elected officials who cycle through key jobs. The outgoing executive director of RAMS is Ron Dicklich, a former legislator. Tomassoni’s chief legislative aide is married to Sen. Tom Bakk, the powerful Majority Leader who hails from Cook in the Iron Range.
Records show that since 2005, RAMS has received two grants from the IRRRB, of which Tomassoni is currently chairman. In 2013 it received $181,520 to develop a “regional integrated learning model.” Last year it received $55,954 for the Better IRRRB Task Force, the citizen group that recommended — as one of two options for the state agency — cordoning off $100 million in taconite tax revenue in a nongovernmental nonprofit to prevent the Legislature from touching it.
Tomassoni’s seat on the IRRRB is set by statute because of where his Senate district resides.
Bakk issued a statement regarding his colleague’s new post: “It is my understanding that Sen. Tomassoni and his private counsel are promptly requesting an advisory opinion from the Campaign Finance Board to determine” the propriety of his new job at RAMS.
Tomassoni received surprising support from two House Republicans.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, and Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, issued a statement on Monday saying that Tomassoni has “upheld the highest standards of ethics and integrity. We disagree with those who have been critical of the Senator’s new employment.”
Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report.