Borrowed Time

Skip Humphrey has spent years building a politically connected staff in the attorney general's office. Now it's payback time.

Of course, similar charges have been leveled against Coleman, who during his tenure as mayor has pumped up St. Paul's public-relations efforts, and who after his election in 1993 appointed key operative Erich Mische to serve as communications director and strategic planner in the mayor's office. Critics said the job involved promoting Coleman as much as the city of St. Paul; at one point Mische took a three-week leave of absence to campaign against a living-wage initiative the mayor opposed. Mische left his government job last year but remains an adviser to the Coleman campaign.

Humphrey's employees have not only given to the campaign of their time; they've also given money, especially during a crucial period last year when the public at large wasn't paying much attention to the race, yet resources were needed to court DFL delegates. More than one-third of the people listed in Humphrey's 1997 campaign-finance report as having made in-kind contributions for food and beverages--contributions that typically come from people who host fundraisers--were employed in the attorney general's office at the time.

On August 12 of last year, for instance, Deputy Attorney General Cindy Jesson hosted a fundraiser that brought in $2,000. Twelve days later Curtis Loewe, manager of the AG office's consumer-affairs division, held a shindig that netted $1,400 for his boss's campaign effort. Then there was Cindy Lavorato, an attorney in the AG's office who is married to Brian Rice, a politically connected lawyer at the Minneapolis firm Best & Flanagan. On December 10 Rice staged a fundraiser at which $3,500 in PAC money--plus $250 from Lavorato--was given to Humphrey's campaign. Five days after that, four more AG staffers held yet another fundraiser that brought in more than $2,500 for Skip.

Add in individual contributions from Humphrey employees, and over a four-month period from August to December of 1997, AG staffers contributed or solicited more than $10,000 for his quest for the governor's office. So far this year, according to the campaign's August 30 financial report, 24 members of the AG's staff have contributed a total of $13,120 to his gubernatorial effort. Several--including Lavorato, director of communications Leslie Sandberg, and assistant attorney general Mia King--wrote checks for $2,000, the maximum allowable total.

"It's not at all unusual having [government staffers] asking to contribute," notes Brucato. "I made a contribution to Arne's campaign. But you have to be very clear about setting up the firewall between the campaign and the office. The governor had very strict rules--no one [in his office] was to host a fundraiser. And [Coleman's] fundraisers are never hosted by anybody involved in the mayor's office. Not in a million years."

Fundraising by people working in government offices has been a particularly touchy subject during the past two years, ever since two staffers in the office of Senate Majority Leader (and Humphrey running mate) Roger Moe were indicted by a Ramsey County grand jury for allegedly ordering a co-worker to compile a list of potential campaign contributors. The indictment was thrown out by a judge, much to the relief of Capitol insiders who had argued that some overlap between official and campaign duties is unavoidable for political appointees. "My problem is that I actually consider it part of their job," says Wy Spano, a political consultant and co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota. "But I know that I'm in the minority on this, and the law we have in Minnesota is clear."

That law says that state employees may not use the public's resources--such as computers, phone lines, and their own working hours--for campaigning. Unlike federal employees, however, they are allowed to work for candidates in their off hours, and to contribute financially. "I would be very surprised if a lot of people working for the attorney general didn't want to help him, because he's apparently a really good boss," says Spano. "But with them all being lawyers and stuff, I'd be very surprised if they broke the law doing it."

Which is about as good an explanation as any of why, in political circles, questions about candidates' use of public employees are greeted with a resounding yawn: As long as the time cards and phone logs are clean, the argument goes, there's nothing to worry about. "I think it's people outside of politics who can't quite understand it," says D.J. Leary, Spano's co-editor and a veteran of many campaigns (including those of Skip's father). "But those that are in it don't see any particular conflicts."

Staff writer Britt Robson and editorial intern Dan Gearino contributed to this story.>

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