Barb Johnson goes to court to defend hair-raising expenses

City Council president allegedly spends campaign money on personal grooming

She wore a dark brown dress and a camel-colored jacket, and when she came in from the cold her hair was crowned with a jaunty beret. Inside the courtroom, Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson raised her hand and swore to tell the whole truth about her hair.

"For me, my appearance is important," Johnson testified. "I consider my hair care to be campaign-related."

Johnson was in a St. Paul courtroom last week facing off with Warren Kaari, a retired South High School history teacher who filed a complaint about her campaign expenses after reading a November 3 exposé in City Pages.

From 2006 to 2009, Johnson spent nearly $11,000 of her campaign war chest on dry-cleaning, haircuts, cell phone, internet and cable television service for her home, AAA coverage for her car, and a land line for her lake house. Ethics experts say the expenses were inappropriate, possibly illegal.

But Johnson justified the expenses as a necessary evil."I consider myself to be campaigning continuously—all the time," she explained in the article. "I can't go to the grocery store or to church without bumping into a constituent and being asked a question, which is the life of a politician."

That made Kaari livid, and he let Johnson know in a scathing email. "If you have a moral compass and a sense of efficacy you would resign," Kaari wrote. Then he insulted her: "$1,154 for hair cuts...ridiculous. They haven't helped."

Johnson did not write back.

In November an administrative law judge ruled that the expenses, at first blush, seemed illegal. Last week, Kaari finally got his day in court. He seemed particularly vexed by the haircuts.

"It seems to me that there's a real pattern of haircuts here, that we need a haircut every three or four weeks," he told the three-judge panel, explaining that his wife served 12 years on the Minneapolis school board and never charged her campaign for hair.

"We should pay for our haircuts by ourselves—all the time," Kaari said.

Under the guidance of her attorney, Corey Ayling, Johnson explained that she charges her campaign account for hair care and dry-cleaning only when they are related to the campaign. Ayling told the three-judge panel that under federal law, campaign funds cannot be used for personal expenses. Minnesota statute, he argued, requires only that expenses be "reasonably related" to a campaign.

"Looking good is a campaign expenditure," Ayling said. "There is a valid campaign purpose."

But Minnesota law isn't as clear on the matter as Ayling makes it out to be, says government ethics expert David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University. "Money collected for political purposes and assets of a political committee or political fund may not be converted to personal use," the statute reads. Schultz says the statute's examples of reasonable campaign expenses—salaries, communications, advertising, printing, office supplies—do not support Ayling's legal argument.

"My tongue-in-cheek way of describing it is the Sesame Street argument: 'Which item doesn't belong here?'" Schultz says. "If I were to list: 'salaries, office expenses, body hygiene.' Which one doesn't fit?"

Johnson said a friend used to cut her hair, until a City Pages profile several years ago described her in unflattering terms. "What to make of this stout woman, the one who sits at the far end during City Council meetings, peering through grandma glasses that accentuate a quasi-bouffant hairstyle that would not have been out of place 50 years ago?"

It was around this time, Johnson testified, that she started going to a new stylist.

Though Johnson was the only Minneapolis councilmember to list hair styling and dry-cleaning on her expense reports during the most recent election cycle, state candidates do it all the time, swore Sarah Janecek, publisher of the e-newsletter Politics in Minnesota, who was paid by Johnson as an expert witness.

"It's very common," Janecek said after the hearing. "Hair and makeup for women is buried in the photography fee. It's not itemized because people do find it embarrassing to list it on there."

The judges could dismiss the charges, slap Johnson with a fine of up to $5,000, or pass the case on to the county attorney for prosecuting. They are expected to make a decision within a few weeks. 

 
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