The second act of the “elephant and donkey” show played out at the State capitol last week. The hearing on ethics complaints filed against DFL Sens. Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion failed to seriously examine the issues, and instead exposed the unwillingness of legislators to address allegations of misconduct within their ranks, and to govern the ethical behavior of its members.
The hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct on Nov. 5 again resulted in a deadlocked vote similar to the action taken by the committee last month at its first hearing on the matter involving ethics allegations against Hayden. The bipartisan committee made up of two Democrats — Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick — and two Republicans — Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria — voted along party lines. The DFL senators did not want to investigate the complaints. The Republican senators wanted to investigate the matters.
After hours of debate, the subcommittee ducked its obligation to investigate, and indefinitely postponed future hearings until the State Department of Commerce and other agencies complete their investigations.
This is unacceptable. After two hearings, the public is no more informed about the truth of the allegations. What is apparent is that the process of allowing the Legislature to govern itself regarding allegations of unethical conduct is flawed.
An inaccurate claim
Pappas, who is the chair of the subcommittee, was quoted in the Star Tribune stating, “We are not an investigatory body. I don’t have a level of comfort to do an investigation.” This statement contradicts the Senate Rules. Pursuant to Senate Rule 55.3, the Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct “shall investigate a complaint made in writing by a member of the Senate under oath.” The subcommittee also has the power to issue subpoenas. Thus, Pappas’ claim that the subcommittee is not an “investigatory body” is simply not accurate. The committee can conduct an investigation, but instead it is unwilling to do so.
Moreover, Senate Rule 55.6, states: “The subcommittee may appoint special counsel to provide expert advice on how to conduct its proceedings. The subcommittee may appoint a suitable person to conduct the investigation and report findings of fact and recommendations for action to the subcommittee.” Thus, if the subcommittee is “uncomfortable” doing its job to investigate the ethics complaints, then it should refer the matter to a neutral, independent investigator.
Written request to the subcommittee for an independent investigation has been made twice by the advocacy group Not On Our Watch. On Oct. 21, Not On Our Watch requested an independent investigation. Pappas responded to the request by simply informing the group that the subcommittee will conduct a hearing, and that the meeting was open to the public.
Any senator can initiate complaint
Not On Our Watch sent a second letter to the committee dated Oct. 23, again renewing its request for an independent investigation. Pappas responded stating “… the Senate Rules do not provide the Subcommitee with the necessary authority” and that “The charge of the Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct is to act on complaints issued by Senate members themselves, rather than the public.” While the public may not be able to initiate an independent ethics investigation, any member of the Senate, including the subcommittee, can do so.
An independent investigation is necessary for the following reasons:
- To avoid the impasse that has resulted given the composition of the subcommittee, which is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans. An independent investigation would allow for the process to be carried out without any potential of voting along party lines.
- Witnesses need to be subpoenaed to testify and be questioned under oath. Witnesses should not be allowed to make self-serving statements without the benefit of examination of such statements by an impartial and neutral factfinder.
- Documents need to be subpoenaed from the Minneapolis Public Schools, Community Standards Initiative (CSI), Community Action, Sen. Hayden and Sen. Champion.
Taxpayers deserve answers
While it is important to give Hayden and Champion due process, it is also important to give the taxpayers answers to these serious allegations about the misuse of public money. The public funding allocated to CSI was supposed to go to helping close the achievement gap between black and white children. The public funding allocated to Community Action was supposed to help low-income residents with various services including weatherization, energy assistance and job training. The Legislature also owes them due process in discovering the truth of these allegations.
Tina Burnside is an attorney and writer who lives in Minneapolis.
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