Puff Daddies

State ethics officials use fuzzy logic to dismiss complaints about Gov. Arne Carlson's Cigarette-Company Junket

THE AMAZING THING isn't that state ethics officials have concluded that Gov. Arne Carlson didn't break Minnesota's gift ban when he and wife Susan accepted an all-expenses-paid trip to Australia from cigarette manufacturers. It's that members of the former Ethical Practices Board, recently renamed the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, expect anyone to buy the logic they used to arrive at their conclusion.

In June 1996 Carlson, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, their wives, and four Philip Morris execs spent eight days in Australia courtesy of two nonprofits funded largely by the tobacco company. In October of that year, Carlson threw Minnesota's support behind a negotiated settlement with the tobacco industry, which is worth tens of billions of dollars to Philip Morris and which state Attorney General Skip Humphrey has worked for months to thwart.

Last week, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board concluded that the $7,000-a-head vacation did not violate Minnesota's ban on lobbyist gifts to public officials for several reasons: The ban doesn't apply if gifts are given because of a politician's membership in a group, provided that the same gift is offered to all members and that a majority of members aren't public officials. The board argued that the trip was offered to all members of the National Governors' Association, within which Carlson is the only public official. State law defines only Minnesota politicians as public officials, so Thompson doesn't count. Nor do the four Philip Morris lobbyists who accompanied the governors down under.

The board members who concocted this rationale, notes state Sen. John Marty, were appointed by Carlson. Marty, the clean-government crusader who filed one of two complaints about the trip, notes that the gift-ban loophole used by the board was supposed to resolve a quandary often faced by part-time officials who, say, work at companies that give out Thanksgiving turkeys.

"Clearly, Philip Morris got its money's worth," says Marty. "They invest $14,000 on this governor's and his spouse's trip and he sends two emissaries to Washington to argue in favor of a settlement that Philip Morris favors.... If Philip Morris gets that thing done, that's billions of dollars." Maybe that's why they don't call it the Ethical Practices Board anymore.

 
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