State Rep. Joe Atkins is drawing fresh political criticism after revelations that his three children all received college scholarships from the nonprofit education foundation he runs.
The Inver Grove Heights DFLer, who has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the BEST Foundation from companies with business before the Legislature, said he has no role in selecting scholarship winners and has no reservations about helping local students get to college.
Keith Downey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, said Atkins' arrangement is troubling.
"Anyone in a position where benefits are accruing back to family members is going to be under suspicion," Downey said. "But couple that with serving in the Legislature and it raises more questions," he said.
Most recently, Atkins' daughter, currently a first-year student at the University of Minnesota, received the $6,000 Praxair Scholarship, sponsored by the industrial gas company and the largest among 124 scholarships awarded by the foundation. Atkins serves as executive director of the foundation, which formed to provide scholarships for students graduating from Simley High School.
Jessica Clifton, chairwoman of the foundation's scholarship board, said at no time was Atkins involved in the selection of the scholarship winners. She said the group maintains a rigorous process to ensure applicants remain anonymous and that the most qualified students win.
Students are assigned a number to shield their identities from the selection committee, Clifton said. Their grades, test scores, class rank, extracurricular activities and financial need are assigned a rating. A software program sorts applicants by eligibility for each scholarship.
A volunteer committee of teachers and other community members makes sure the students are eligible for a given scholarship and then grades the application's essays and personal recommendations.
Atkins said he has always asked the board if they wanted him to withdraw his own children from consideration. Clifton said the board voted to allow eligibility for the Atkins children.
Mike Molzahn, a House DFL spokesman, said every student who properly completes the application for a scholarship receives at least something. So, Atkins' children would have won scholarships even had they met the minimum requirements.
The Praxair scholarship stipulates that a student should be planning to major in agriculture, biology, civil engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, environmental engineering or environmental sciences. Atkins' daughter is at the Carlson School of Business and planning to major in finance or accounting.
Clifton said Atkins was qualified because she expressed an interest on her application in majoring in agribusiness, which made her eligible. Clifton said it would be impossible to verify the future plans of dozens of scholarship winners.
Atkins, whose full-time job is as an attorney, has already faced scrutiny over his part-time work with the BEST Foundation. Some of the foundation's donors have business before the Legislature, including before the Commerce Committee, which he chaired when the DFL last held the majority in 2014. The Commerce Committee plays an important role in determining the state's business regulatory policies.
"It does not influence how I vote," he said.
Atkins, who is paid $25,000 in his role as executive director of the foundation, said that legislators raise money from corporate interests and others all the time, but usually on behalf of their campaigns. In this case, he said, the money raised goes to a worthwhile charity.
Atkins said he is proud of the work he has done for the foundation.
"I love doing this job, helping kids go to school," he said. "I have been bending over backward to keep the politics out of it."
J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042