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That sentiment is echoed by current chair Carey, who adds that he sees no problem in the fact that Sutton now draws salaries from both the people and the party. "My understanding is that this is an accepted practice," Carey says. "The state of Minnesota needs to hold their employees accountable to do their job. If the job is being done, I don't see where there would be a conflict. We've been meticulous in trying to make sure there is no violation of law."
In the view of David Schultz, it is not that clear-cut. A professor at Hamline University with a specialty in public policy and political ethics, Schultz says that Sutton may have run afoul of a provision in the state's conflict-of-interest law. Among other things, that law bars executive branch employees from accepting outside work that "affects the employee's independence of judgment."
"As a party official, he's expected to be cheering for Republican mayors and councils," Schultz says. "You can't provide independent auditing of governments at the same time you're writing checks for candidates running for office."
Mark Asch, the president of Common Cause Minnesota, agrees. "Trying to maintain a bright line between political activities and governmental administration is always a problem," Asch says. "Why an office as sensitive as state auditor would invite those questions is just astounding. I think it shows appalling political judgment."
Former State Auditor Judith Dutcher professes no opinion on the legality of Sutton's employment. She notes, however, that during her tenure in the office, none of her deputies were moonlighting. In part, she says, that's because she kept them too busy to work a second job. But, she adds, she would have been concerned about appearances had such a scenario arisen.
Dutcher explains, "Once you say, 'I'm going to work for an elected official and the taxpayers are paying my salary,' you have to ask yourself, 'What would they think? Does it pass the smell test?'"
For his part, Sutton says there is less potential for conflict than his critics imagine. Sutton says that his duties in the office are mainly administrative. He explains that most of his time goes into overseeing the mountains of mandatory annual reports submitted by cities, counties, and other governmental entities. Improving the agency's website, he says, absorbs a lot of his remaining attention.
Sutton goes on to insist that there really isn't anything that unusual about his dual roles. He notes that former DFL Chairman Mike Erlandson held his leadership post while serving simultaneously as chief of staff for Congressman Martin Sabo. (Erlandson responds that he never accepted pay for his party work. Under federal rules, he adds, he would be prohibited from doing so without taking a leave of absence. "If the state law doesn't address that in some fashion," he adds, "it should.")
State Sen. John Marty, one of the legislature's most persistent champions of clean government, thinks the main concern is whether the state is getting its money's worth out of Sutton. "It may be inappropriate, it may be wrong, but it's probably not illegal," Marty says.
As Sutton tells it, his critics aren't the only ones displeased with his current arrangement. The workload--60 to 70 hours a week--is just too much. "I've got a wife and kids, so it's taken a pretty big toll on my personal life." He says he expects to quit the paid position with the party once a new executive director can be found, probably in the next few months.