As the legislative session got underway in mid-February, Sen. Erik Simonson introduced a bill to secure nearly $1 million in state infrastructure bonds for a major expansion at Lake Superior College.
On Wednesday, the Duluth Democrat started a new $100,053-a-year job as executive director of continuing education and customized training at the college, the same institution he was seeking to fund. While he’d applied months earlier, the transition, he said, was “accelerated” when cuts prompted by the coronavirus pandemic threatened his previous job as CEO of the Lake Superior Zoo.
The timing has sparked questions from some experts on government ethics. David Schultz, former president of Common Cause Minnesota, said the circumstances under which the lawmaker carried legislation to benefit a prospective employer “fits a classic definition” of a conflict of interest.
“It’s the absolute, core, core bedrock notion of what a conflict of interest is about,” said Schultz, a professor at Hamline University. “Either it’s a real conflict of interest that he did it or it raises such enormous appearances of impropriety that it’s a problem.”
Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, said she too is bothered by the timeline in which Simonson introduced the funding bill after he had applied for the job.
Simonson disputes any suggestion of a conflict of interest. He said he had carried bills on behalf of the college before because it is in his legislative district. The idea that the bonding proposal might be problematic because he was applying for a job at the school “didn’t cross my mind.”
He said he had concurrently applied for several jobs, including an opening at the Public Utilities Commission, in anticipation of his work with the zoo ending this summer or fall.
“To be honest, I think every individual legislator that has to work outside the Legislature has to deal with this at some point. We are all pretty careful about not benefiting ourselves, so a lot of this is outside perception,” he said.
Simonson wasn’t the only legislator seeking money for Lake Superior College. His proposal was co-sponsored by other greater Minnesota legislators from both parties and was included in Gov. Tim Walz’s bonding proposal.
Both the senator and Lake Superior College officials say the bonding proposal didn’t influence the decision, although the bill was filed within days of his interview in February. A spokesman for the college said that Simonson applied for the role in late November, four days after the job was posted. He was one of seven candidates interviewed by a hiring committee of faculty and administrators. A candidate review completed by the committee, provided to the Star Tribune, lists the former firefighter’s strengths, including experience teaching at the school and background in labor and workforce issues.
By March 6, with Simonson then a finalist for the job, he met with Lake Superior College President Patricia Rogers to discuss the position and potential future conflicts in his role as a state senator. Daniel Fanning, the college spokesman, said both agreed that if offered the position Simonson would recuse himself as author of the bonding bill, which is still pending.
The college initially planned to allow Simonson to start the job in May, after the legislative session ended, to remove any potential conflicts. But with Simonson’s zoo job ending, they agreed to move up the date.
“Whether it was him or someone else, whoever it was in the position, we wanted them to fill the vacant position,” Fanning said. “The ideal situation would have been as soon as possible.”
The hiring wasn’t the first time Simonson’s legislative and professional work collided at the Capitol. In 2017, months before taking a job with the Lake Superior Zoo, he introduced legislation to secure $1.9 million in state bonds to build an amphitheater at the institution.
Simonson said in an interview Friday that he has always sought to follow guidance from nonpartisan Senate counsel. “The advice I always got from internal counsel was as long as it doesn’t directly benefit you, it isn’t a direct conflict,” he said.
Minnesota legislators meet four months a year at the Capitol and make roughly $46,500 a year. Most hold jobs outside the Capitol. Under state law and chamber rules, senators must disclose to legislative leaders any actions or decisions that could “substantially affect” their financial interests. Those disclosures are not required to be made public.
A Senate DFL spokeswoman said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent is confident Simonson was “very thorough in ensuring there was no conflict of interest” before accepting the new role. She confirmed that the senator plans to find a new author for the bonding bill when legislators return to St. Paul.
Simonson is the most recent in a series of lawmakers who have faced conflict-of-interest questions over their outside work. DFL Rep. Kaohly Vang Her’s dual roles as lawmaker and policy director for St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter came under fire earlier this year after she sponsored a proposal to fund college savings plans for newborns in the city — one of Carter’s top policy goals. Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, resigned from a temporary fellowship at a University of Minnesota think tank in September after internal documents requested by House Republicans raised questions about preferential treatment in the hiring process. A review by outside attorneys hired by the House determined Long did not violate any ethics rules.
Questions about potential conflicts have sparked calls for change to the Legislature’s ethics and job disclosure rules in recent months, but no official action has been taken.
Staff writer Brooks Johnson contributed to this report.