Secrets and lies

Why Telegate matters

Early last fall, in the thick of a four-way gubernatorial race, Tim Pawlenty suffered what looked like a disastrous setback. The state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, the agency charged with ensuring that candidates who accept public financing adhere to agreed-upon spending limits, had just determined that the Pawlenty campaign and the state Republican Party had engaged in an end run--to the tune of about $637,000.

Both Pawlenty and the state GOP were found to have violated the prohibition against "coordinated" campaigns, a rule put in place to prevent the most egregious skirting of the spending rules. Pawlenty negotiated a deal. Just three weeks before election day, he agreed to pay a $100,000 fine and to accept a $500,000 reduction in his war chest. It was a hefty penalty (in fact, a state record), though less than the crippling $1 million figure of early speculation. For good measure, he fired a Washington, D.C.-based media consultant implicated in the mess.

And then, savvy politician that he is, Pawlenty began spinning.

While maintaining that he disagreed with the campaign board's findings--to do otherwise would have amounted to an admission of cheating--Pawlenty said he accepted "full, unequivocal responsibility" for the affair: "I am the captain of the team. It happened on my watch. I have to take responsibility for it, and that's what I'm doing today."

The public and the media lapped it up. Maybe that was because Pawlenty came off like a human being and not an obfuscating lawyer. In the legislature, he cultivated a reputation for being a straight arrow, routinely recusing himself from votes involving the judiciary because his wife is a judge. He even declined to vote on some school funding packages, citing his past work as an attorney for school districts.

Half a year later, the governor's squeaky clean reputation is beginning to look like so much artifice. And last year's campaign finance scandal begins to look like the first public sign of tendencies that now begin to seem familiar.

While there is scant evidence of outright illegality (save for improper paperwork, which can be easily amended), last week's revelations about Pawlenty's deftly concealed involvement in the telecom industry have cast the governor and his political partners in a far less flattering light. (His approval rating stood at only 50 percent prior to this episode.) For all his fabled openness, Pawlenty actually spent much of the week dissembling. Asked about his director role at NewTel, the parent company of a telecom accused of cheating consumers, Pawlenty said characteristically at one point, "The fault, if there is a fault to be assigned to me, is people are saying I should have known. And I guess if that's the standard then I have to take responsibility for that and say I should have asked questions or should have gone and done my own investigation."

As a lawyer, Pawlenty indisputably knew that corporate officers bear certain clear-cut oversight responsibilities. Yet just as in the case of the campaign scandal, his words owned up to very little. But he seemed happy to jabber on about the board; it deflected attention from the bigger part of the burgeoning story--the $60,000 he received while on retainer with Access Anywhere, a pay phone company owned by GOP activist and telecom entrepreneur Elam Baer.

 

What is wrong with the Pawlenty-Baer arrangement, first disclosed by Pawlenty last week after the board story broke?

To start with, there is the fundamental issue of transparency in government. When he was running for governor, candidate Pawlenty professed to recognize the value of openness, telling the Star Tribune he supported a bill expanding financial disclosure requirements for constitutional officers. "The issue is not a question of how much [money politicians have]," he said, "but what an officeholder is invested in, whether it constitutes a conflict of interest."

Yet in his statement of financial interest, Pawlenty made no mention of his hefty earnings from Access Anywhere. Instead, he reported it as investment income derived from a corporation called BAMCO (an acronym for Business and Management Consulting). BAMCO's sole function seems to have been collecting checks from Access Anywhere. When it was pointed out that this method of listing his earnings effectively prevented political rivals, the media, or the public from connecting the dots to his telecom ties, Pawlenty blamed his accountant.

Because a loophole in the state's disclosure rules excludes income earned as an "independent contractor" from reporting requirements, Pawlenty will likely face no significant legal consequences as a result of the misdirection. By Wednesday, he announced he would amend the report, which is permitted by law.

But little that Pawlenty or his operatives said last week served to diminish the suspicion that the lucrative Access Anywhere retainer amounted to a campaign contribution. The most significant question--what did Pawlenty do for his money?--remains unanswered. Late last week, Pawlenty spokeswoman Leslie Kupchella said the governor was negotiating a waiver so he could release his contract with Access Anywhere. Even if the contract materializes, it will do little to answer the pertinent questions about what services, if any, he rendered. And Kupchella continued to insist that Pawlenty would not be providing any further documentation of his labors.

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