Wrestling With Immunity

Minnesota has a code of ethics for its executive branch. It just doesn't apply to the governor.

So much for the naysayers. But earlier this month, after filing a request under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, Davis pried loose a copy of an August 2 letter sent by Sandra Hyllengren, an ethics officer for the Minnesota Department of Employee Relations, to three of the governor's top staffers. And therein he found some support for his position. "I can think of no way he can avoid being characterized as an employee," Hyllengren wrote in reference to Ventura, and went so far as to add that the governor "offends the statute in a number of ways."

Unfortunately for Davis, Hyllengren's boss, Department of Employee Relations Commissioner Karen Carpenter, believes Ventura is a "public official" and not an "employee." Opines Carpenter: "I really believe that the governor, being a public official, is not subject to the code of ethics as it is written in 43A of the statutes. Sandy Hyllengren read the statute differently and her thoughts on the matter are her opinion, that's it." (Hyllengren did note in her letter that hers was merely an "unofficial opinion.")

 

While Davis has failed to locate anybody willing to drag Ventura into court, he might spur lawmakers to clean up their statutory language. "I do think that the laws governing conflict of interest are complex and confusing to even the brightest people around," Karen Carpenter concedes. "I wouldn't be surprised if the Legislature did something to clarify it."

Even though legislative auditor Jim Nobles doesn't believe Ventura's WWF moonlighting constitutes a conflict, he too admits to being puzzled that the law could be interpreted to read that the governor isn't a state employee. "I'm baffled by the suggestion. I don't know that anybody's ever suggested before now that governors and constitutional officers are not subject to that law," a mystified Nobles allows. "When you have judges and other people in other legal positions saying the law is unclear," he adds, "maybe the Legislature should nail it down so that no one who speaks the English language could have any doubt."

Ventura spokesman John Wodele agrees that the law could stand clarification, but he maintains that Davis is wasting the courts' time: "To put something like this in the criminal courts," he asserts, "is absurd."

Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum (R-Kenyon) believes Ventura is indeed violating the conflict-of-interest statute, but he's not apt to raise a stink. "If he's not an employee, I wonder where he gets his checks from," Sviggum jokes. "But I'm not wanting to make a war out of this issue. I want to develop a working relationship and a trust with the governor." Sviggum says he has heard talk that others might introduce legislation next year to clarify the "employee" issue.

Even a perennial ethics watchdog like Sen. John Marty (D-Roseville) isn't getting too wound up about the issue, however. "If there's little public outrage," Marty offers, "I don't think the Legislature is going to be inclined to do much."

Davis, meanwhile, press-releases on undaunted. He says he intends to exhaust all administrative and legal remedies before he petitions to hold a recall election (an endeavor that he estimates would require about half a million signatures). "If I do everything right, that'll eventually wind up at the state supreme court for a decision!" he enthuses.

"This is only the fifth round in a fifteen-rounder," he adds. "It's hard work, it's costing me money. But I think in the end the people of the state are going to appreciate what I'm doing."

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