Political fallout surrounding a Minnesota legislator’s paid fellowship at the University of Minnesota this year has focused new attention at the Capitol on how lawmakers disclose outside employment and avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, resigned from a temporary research position at a university-run energy institute this month after internal documents requested by House Republicans raised questions about preferential treatment in the hiring process, the source of funding for the role and whether the job would conflict with his work at the Capitol.
The controversy sparked an internal review by House leadership and prompted incoming university President Joan Gabel to pledge to address hiring procedures that she acknowledged had undermined a “core value” of the institution.
The episode also has sparked renewed calls for tougher conflict-of-interest and public-disclosure rules for Minnesota’s 201 state representatives and senators, the majority of whom hold outside jobs when the Legislature is not in session.
“We should clearly have stronger disclosure laws,” said DFL state Sen. John Marty, a longtime advocate for transparency in government. “There are certain types of situations where you may have a need for more disclosures and some things that aren’t disclosed.”
Leaders in both chambers say most legislators largely do their best to adhere to the current ethics rules and annual disclosure requirements. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, encourages members to seek advice when they are unsure. But Gazelka, the top Republican in the Legislature, sees the current disclosure requirements as sufficient. “[It’s] the responsibility of the individual legislator to determine whether what they are doing was the right direction or not,” he said.
That’s the approach state Sen. Michael Goggin takes. The Red Wing Republican has publicly recused himself from committee and floor votes on multiple occasions because of his job as a project manager at Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant. Goggin said he frequently confers with caucus leaders and Senate counsel to make sure he’s not crossing an ethical line. He informs colleagues, and the public, when he does need to sit out the vote by making a statement on the Senate floor.
“I’m constantly asking questions: Is this legislation something that’s just going to benefit Xcel Energy or is it open to others?” Goggin said. “I probably drive our lawyers crazy at the Capitol about that … [but] I don’t want to have a conflict of interest. I want to do it honestly and professionally and I don’t want to do anything the wrong way.”
Some lawmakers say overlap between their dual roles is difficult to avoid. Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, serves as executive director of Minnesota Education Equity Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy organization that receives state funds. Earlier this year, he voted for a higher education spending bill that included a $90,000 appropriation to his organization.
Mariani said state funding for his employer predated his time with the organization. While the longtime legislator initially recused himself from such votes, he ultimately decided that abstaining over “one small provision” was “making it difficult to carry out my function as a people’s [representative] to shape postsecondary laws.” He compared his situation to farmers voting on an agriculture measure that “invests in research that benefits their farms or their co-ownership of an ethanol plant” or physicians backing a bill that “sets state reimbursement rates.”
“The possible scenarios can be as diverse as our citizenry’s occupations,” Mariani said. “I believe the key is to be transparent, to set up objectively measurable outcomes for use of state funds, and to have those meet a compelling public interest.”
As members of a part-time Legislature, representatives and senators spend four to five months a year in session in St. Paul and earn an annual salary of $46,500, plus payments and reimbursements meant to offset their travel and lodging expenses. This puts most in need of work the rest of the year.
Some analysts say that convening a body of elected officials who bring real-world experience to the job is, in theory, part of the appeal of a part-time citizen Legislature. But reconciling that reality with the potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest raised by that outside work can be a challenge.
“There’s always a certain amount of tension between your official policy duties and your private professional duties, or there can be,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said. “We have to be careful not to skew so far that people can’t earn a livelihood and serve in the Legislature.” Even with that balancing act, the DFLer said he’d support strengthening disclosure requirements.
A number of state and internal rules governing conflict of interest are meant to address those tensions. State law requires that all public officials, including state legislators, file an annual statement of economic interest that lists their employer, as well as other financial interests. Lawmakers faced with an official vote or action that could impact their personal finances must give written notification to legislative leaders. Each chamber has its own rules governing ethics.
But even if lawmakers follow the rules, critics say gaps in current disclosure requirements mean the public may not know if — or when — legislators are taking votes that could affect them financially. Financial disclosure forms are required just once a year, meaning the public is left in the dark when lawmakers switch jobs mid-session. The forms do not include a lawmaker’s outside salary or their spouse’s job. Legislators who work in fields where clients pay the bills, such as lawyers, consultants, independent contractors or insurance brokers, are not required to identify those sources of income. Because the Legislature is exempt from the state’s open records laws, internal communications detailing potential conflicts of interest are not subject to public review.
While House rules ban members from lobbying, there’s no prohibition in state law on the type of job a legislator can hold. In 2015, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board determined that DFL Sen. David Tomassoni’s job with a local government advocacy organization did not present a conflict of interest with his legislative duties, even though the position had included lobbying in the past. Tomassoni swiftly resigned from the role anyway.
Other states have tougher laws. Minnesota ranked 28th in the nation for governmental transparency and accountability, receiving a “D-” rating, in a 2015 analysis published by the Center for Public Integrity, a government watchdog group.
Common Cause Minnesota Executive Director Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera argues that the state “absolutely” needs to revisit and revise current laws. She said the Long controversy, which the group is reviewing, highlights “an area we need to address.”
“Manners of influencing decision-makers are getting more creative, they’re not as overt anymore,” she said. “More gray areas are popping up.”