The Jesse Syndrome

Mary Fallon

Wrestling ref Jesse Ventura. Radio host Norm Coleman. The headlines have been coming fast and furious lately, and so has the criticism: Full-time elected officials, the argument goes, shouldn't make money from side gigs. At the state Legislature, lawmakers are busy drawing up proposals to prohibit such income.

But what about part-timers--politicians who, by law, are not expected to devote their full workweek to constituents? That question has been drawing attention in St. Paul, spurred by Second Ward council member Chris Coleman's recent decision to close his private law practice and take a job at public-relations firm Goff & Howard. Coleman says his work at the company, cofounded in 1966 by his father Nick, will focus on media and government relations and will include some lobbying at the state level. (Coleman won't say what he makes at his new job; his council gig pays $30,000 annually.)

Coleman stresses that Goff & Howard's work rarely touches the city of St. Paul, and says he will strive to make sure that "Chris Coleman, council member" and "Chris Coleman, PR man and lobbyist" lead strictly separate lives. But while Goff & Howard has not done business with the city directly, critics note that the firm has often worked on issues near and dear to city hall: For example, last year its representatives lobbied the council on behalf of client Hamline University. And this fall it provided media relations services to Yes! St. Paul, the business group promoting a taxpayer-financed stadium in the city.

"He's out of order here, working for a company that lobbies the city," declares Andy Driscoll, a St. Paul communications consultant and former charter commission member who has run against Coleman in the past. "There are clear questions as to whether or not that represents an appropriate place for him."

The stage for the argument was set in 1991, when voters opted to make the capital city's council a part-time body. Proponents argued that the change would save money and draw a more diverse group of candidates. But critics say the setup has also helped blur the lines between public policy and private interest on a council where four of seven members hold outside jobs. (The Third Ward's Mike Harris is a director at United HealthCare Corp.; Jay Benanav of Ward Four is president of a nonprofit insurance company; and Fifth Ward representative Jim Reiter is a broker with Jay Blank Realty.)

Coleman says he's still working to define which part of Goff & Howard's business could clash with his council position but that he will recuse himself from voting on topics that could present a conflict of interest. He acknowledges that he may occasionally lobby government agencies and municipalities on behalf of his clients, but says he would never work on a project St. Paul might potentially bid on as well. "If I'm doing something that would harm the city of St. Paul," he insists, "I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole."

For instance, he says, if the stadium issue were being debated now he'd make sure to "create a wall" between himself and those working on the Yes! St. Paul account. Coleman says he was talking with Goff & Howard about a job this fall, when the campaign was in full swing. But, he says, the negotiations had nothing to do with his support of the stadium. "This is not someone who's paying me back for an issue," Coleman argues. "[Bob Goff] is someone I've known since I was five years old."

In Driscoll's view, that deep relationship is precisely the problem. "He can recuse himself from a vote, but he cannot recuse himself from a connection," he declares. "He could have been a lawyer anyplace. He doesn't have to accept this kind of position."

True, says Coleman--but there is no guarantee that any job would have insulated him from criticism. "If I were a manager at McDonald's on West Seventh Street, is that an appearance of conflict of interest because I make zoning decisions for Taco Bell?" he asks.

It's a question state senator John Marty knows all too well. "It's always tougher on a part-time council," says the Roseville DFLer, a longtime advocate for tougher ethics rules at the state Legislature. "You get into a sticky thing: What's a legitimate private-sector job to go along with a public-sector office?"

Because the Legislature is also a part-time body, senators and representatives often have jobs away from the capitol; Marty (who does not) estimates that up to three-quarters of legislators hold outside positions. They must disclose who their employers are, but they don't have to reveal the clients of those firms. Which is a problem, Marty contends, because it means the public may not know whether there are strings attached to a politician's positions. "The public can't know unless they find out who those clients are," he argues. "The conflict may be totally hidden." Last session, Marty introduced legislation that would have required legislators to disclose whether their firms did business with lobbyists or public-interest groups. The measure failed; Marty says he'll try again if he can round up more support.

That, however, may not happen, says Steven Schier, chair of the political science department at Carleton College: He argues that the governor's relaxed sense of what constitutes an ethical conflict may well set the new standard. "To the extent that Jesse is leading by example, he is encouraging people to be ethically challenged or challengeable," he charges. "Because Jesse has blurred the lines on this, it may be that you're seeing more of it."

At the local level, the state does set some ethics rules, including a ban on gifts from lobbyists to elected officials and limits on campaign contributions. But municipal governments are generally responsible for their own conflict-of-interest rules. And sometimes, Marty notes, conflicts can't be avoided--especially in small communities where city hall and the chamber of commerce are often run by the same people. Most city councils in the state are part-time bodies, according to the League of Minnesota Cities; Minneapolis's is full-time.

But St. Paul is no country hamlet--and for a good-sized city, it has had more than its share of ethics debates. Many of the city's key conflict-of-interest rules were not put in place until controversy forced officials' hands: For example, a 1997 amendment of the St. Paul charter--the city's constitution--requires that city employees who are elected to the council take a leave of absence from their government jobs. That rule came up after questions were raised about Dino Guerin, who worked as a St. Paul firefighter while serving on the city council. Among other things, the council negotiates pay scales for city workers.

Another city rule states that an official "shall not participate in any manner in any governmental action, if the governmental action would directly or indirectly affect the financial interest of his or her employer." That one was passed last year, after reports that then-council president Dave Thune had taken a consulting job with M.A. Mortenson Co. A few months earlier Thune had voted to allow the Minnesota Wild to hire its own manager for construction of a city-subsidized hockey arena; the Wild eventually chose Mortenson. In 1994 Thune raised similar questions by taking a part-time job with Minnesota Brewing Co., a company that a few years before had been awarded almost $900,000 in financing from the city.

St. Paul's code also states that a city official who receives an offer of employment must disclose that offer to the city clerk, but only if that employer has a financial interest in any project in which St. Paul is substantially interested. (A "substantial interest" is defined as an obligation to spend more than $50,000 in public funds. Goff & Howard's work for Yes! St. Paul did not fit that definition, so Coleman was not required to file information about his offer.)

Ethics rules for St. Paul officials can be either drafted by the city council or suggested by the charter commission, a 15-member committee (appointed by the chief judge of Ramsey County District Court) that considers amendments to the city charter and puts proposals before the voters. Over the years individual members--including Driscoll, who served on the commission between 1990 and '98--have suggested making the city's ethics code stricter, but their proposals rarely mustered enough votes. In general, says chairman Bob Butterbrodt, the commission has taken a hands-off approach: "Let these issues be settled in the political arena," he explains. "Or, if there is a violation of a law, prosecute them."

Theoretically, there is one more panel charged with making sure officials stay on the straight and narrow: City law provides for an ethics panel to investigate complaints. But when the body did just that in a case in the early 1990s, members were told they hadn't followed proper rules for their fact-finding, so the panel disbanded. "The language of the law remains in place," says Driscoll. "It's just not being implemented in any way." The problem, he recalls, was that the city didn't have a clear code of ethics or specific guidelines for investigating what, if anything, constituted an offense.

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