I sat in the stuffy room at the State Capitol and listened to the Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct debate the case of Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Champion for nearly five hours Wednesday.
Here’s what I got out of it:
Someone should have investigated the matter more so that the committee had enough information to decide whether to investigate more.
But since the person filing the complaint, Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, did not have the power to investigate more, and because Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, doesn’t believe the committee members have the skills or power to investigate more, they will postpone deciding whether to investigate more until another “parallel” investigation by the Minnesota Dept. of Commerce is complete.
At some point in this surreal circular probable cause debate, Hann shook his head. “So in other words we don’t have the power to do anything,” he said.
That about summed it up. You want to use the word “parallel”? How about parallel universe, which is where this body resides.
Proof is in the paper
Hann brought ethics charges against Democrats Hayden and Champion because of two stories in this newspaper. In one, at least one anonymous source accused the senators of threatening to cut funding from public schools unless they hired a consulting group, Community Standards Initiative (CSI), to help narrow the achievement gap. Hayden’s father has been quoted twice in this newspaper, speaking on behalf of CSI, though he now says he has no ties to the organization.
The second story said documents obtained by a Star Tribune reporter proved that now-shuttered Community Action of Minneapolis paid for a nonbusiness-related trip to New York for Hayden.
The ethics panel is supposed to be bipartisan. It clearly is not. The two Republicans repeatedly tried to push for opening an official inquiry. The two Democrats repeatedly argued they didn’t have enough information to decide if they should seek more information.
The Republicans repeatedly used articles from this newspaper to show there was enough information available to proceed. The Democrats basically said you’d be crazy to believe a newspaper.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, was eventually struck with a moment of genius. He simply asked Hayden, who was sitting across the table, whether the stories were accurate.
Hayden’s lawyer cut him off, however, saying they would be happy to answer that question once the investigation from the Department of Commerce was finished, which may be months.
In attempting to investigate whether the senators bullied school officials, Hann sent questionnaires to 18 people involved in the CSI contract. Only three responded. Of the three, only one directly answered the question of bullying by the senators. The school board chairman said they did not bully him. Then again, he wasn’t the chairman at the time.
Minneapolis schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson skirted the question, instead using such phrases as the senators were “strong advocates” for the contract or “expressed frustration” over the reluctance to award CSI.
Worthy probe adjourned
Hann made a good point: If someone asked you if you’d been threatened and you hadn’t, wouldn’t you just say no? Of course. But the school district has to work with the senators, so Johnson dodged the question, Hann suggested.
Which is why Hann, and the Republican committee members, justifiably wanted to launch an investigation. “They need to be asked under oath, did he threaten to withhold financing?” said Hann.
Instead, the hearing was nearly six hours of semantic gymnastics by the evasive Democrats as they tried to justify putting off the inquiry.
In fairness, I have little doubt that if the senators in question were Republicans, the dialogue would have been flipped.
Hayden’s lawyer kept saying Hann had as evidence “one sentence in a news article.”
There was also a lot of talk about the behavior of Hayden and Champion being “garden variety” and “vanilla” lobbying. The claim was unintentionally illuminating, suggesting legislators regularly threaten people for what they want. In the end, the two sides came to some garbled resolution that means nothing. They will postpone action until the Commerce Department investigation is done.
A rep from the Department of Human Services, which audited Community Action, said all the information will presumably become public. I can’t wait.
I have seen the document that shows Community Action paid for Hayden’s trip. I’m guessing that Hayden will eventually argue that it happened all the time and was approved by Community Action’s board (which includes his wife).
Frankly I have no idea if the senators threatened school officials, but there was a pretty easy way to find out: Launch the investigation, call the school officials in, and ask them.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin