What Hearings? What Scandal?

The Republicans see no evil-- and most of the Democrats don't seem to, either

Last Friday night onpublic TV's Almanac, D.J. Leary-- identified as a "veteran political observer" and "Democrat"-- proclaimed that he'd traveled 1,500 miles around the state in the previous few days, and not one person had brought up the breaking Pawlenty scandals. Nary a word, that is, about the governor's see-no-evil board directorship for a company connected to sleazy telemarketing practices, or his subsequent admission that he had received more than $50,000 from his friend and colleague Elam Baer and possessed no documentary evidence that he'd done anything to earn it.

"All the people I talk to," gushed Leary, "and they are outside the metropolitan area, these ladies out there are wonderful. They want to bring [Pawlenty] home for pie." His biggest complaint of the night, half-joking, was, "These people are so cliquish, so clubbish, they never let a Democrat in to take a piece of the action."

It was left to the Republican in the discussion, Sarah Janecek, to observe, "The worst part of it is that a working-class family doesn't understand that kind of money, and seemingly for work that wasn't done." Realizing what she'd said, Janecek spun her wheels in reverse--"We don't know if it was done. Elam says it was done. I believe it was done"--before helplessly concluding, "Tim Pawlenty is as honest as the day is long."

If nothing else, the Pawlenty revelations of the past week have upped the ante on a question that has been brewing for months now: How blatant does the disconnect between the governor's folksy persona and his Darwinian behavior have to become before the DFL summons the spine to take him on?

Pawlenty's supporters have predictably complained that the Democrats are trying to turn last week's revelations into a partisan sideshow. But the striking thing is that aside from Sen. Ellen Anderson's announcement that she has scheduled hearings early next month, only a handful (including Reps. Matt Entenza and Tom Rukavina, and Sen. Steve Kelley) of the party's dozens of elected officials have spoken out on the subject. One auspiciously silent voice has been that of John Hottinger, the Senate majority leader who brokered his party's cave-in on taxes at the end of this spring's legislative session.

"Are the Democrats having a good time watching the governor twist in the wind? Yeah. I have to admit I've enjoyed opening the morning paper every day," says State Senator Linda Higgins of Minneapolis. "I'm a Democrat, I am not a Republican. Does that make me partisan? Then call it partisan, I don't care."

But as the chair of the senate's elections subcommittee, Higgins is in a position to call hearings regarding questions about Baer's previously undisclosed payments to Pawlenty. Specifically, did Pawlenty do anything to earn the money? If not, is that a violation of campaign finance laws? And if not, do those laws need to be changed? Anderson says that while she won't rule out the inclusion of those subjects in her commerce and utilities committee hearings into Pawlenty's NewTel board membership, they fit Higgins's subcommittee better. (Another, more narrowly focused avenue of investigation would ensue if a formal complaint were lodged with the state's Campaign Finance Board, which as of Sunday hadn't occurred.)

"I haven't had anybody ask to have a hearing and I haven't thought about it in those terms," Higgins says. "Paying the living expenses of a friend who is running for governor--is there anybody who thinks it is any more than that? It would take a roomful of lawyers to figure out how one would even report that, if that is a campaign donation that is beyond what is legal."

As Higgins's tone suggests, Minnesotans shouldn't hold their breath waiting for a campaign finance investigation. Nearly five years ago, City Pages reported that State Senator Dallas Sams, a Democrat from Staples who is still in office, sponsored legislation in 1997 that appropriated $1 million for the University of Minnesota College of Agriculture. That same year, Sams received $12,500 from a university program that benefited from the appropriation, rerouted through another company in an apparent attempt to hide the connection. Yet because Sams was acting as an "independent contractor," he did not have to list the payment on his financial disclosure form.

At the time, the head of the Minnesota chapter of Common Cause described the independent contractor provision as "a loophole big enough to drive a truck through." The loophole was a significant reason why in 1999 a watchdog group called The Center for Public Integrity ranked Minnesota 35th in the nation "for making basic information on state legislators' private income, assets, and conflicts of interest available to the public." And it's why Tim Pawlenty has been able to make a straight-faced argument that what he did was not improper.

The DFL response has been so weak that the ubiquitous D.J. Leary actually told the Pioneer Press last Friday that the governor's people ought to just shut up. "They're keeping it alive themselves," he said. "There's nobody on the other side that's smart enough to do that."

But the real issue isn't smarts; it's political will. "The independent contractor thing is a ridiculous loophole that I've been trying to close for years," says Sen. John Marty (DFL-St.Paul). In the most recent session, Marty sponsored a bill that would have required full disclosure of independent contracts and consulting fees by lobbyists and the firms that hire lobbyists. ("But I couldn't get it for businesses," he notes, "so I think it was too weak to fix the problem with Pawlenty.") The bill failed, as most such measures do. After passing in the Senate, it was killed by the Republican-controlled House in conference committee.

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