Love Me Two Times
Tony Sutton pulls down two paychecks. Of course, there's nothing strange about that; a lot of people work a couple of gigs to get by. Yet Sutton, who was earning about $85,000 a year in his job at the State Auditor's Office, would seem to have been handsomely situated. Ostensibly, then, he didn't take his other job--a $42,000-a-year post with the state Republican Party--for the money.
In fact, as Sutton tells it, he just wanted to become more involved with the party that's been the mainstay of his professional life. Growing up in a Democratic household on the Iron Range, Sutton was distributing literature for Ronald Reagan by the time he was 17. Two years later, the precocious pol was a GOP district chair--a rapid ascendance that, he acknowledges, was helped along by the dearth of Republicans on the DFL-dominated Range.
In the decades since, however, the 38-year-old Sutton has earned a reputation as one of the state's more industrious political operatives. His résumé includes stints as a field director for former U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz, campaign manager for gubernatorial hopeful Brian Sullivan, finance director for the Republican Party of Minnesota, an unsuccessful run for the state legislature, and two separate tours of duty as the executive director of the Republican Party of Minnesota, the GOP's top staff position.
But in 2003, Sutton decided to drop out of party work to accept a government job. As one of three deputies serving under State Auditor Patricia Anderson, he helps oversee a staff of approximately 150, with the aim of monitoring the approximately $19 billion counties, cities, and other local government units spend each year.
While the work is largely bureaucratic, it is not without its partisan aspects--and, in the view of some, Anderson has been more aggressive than most of her predecessors. In her first month in office, for instance, Anderson released a stinging report on the state's local government aid program, earning her the lasting enmity of many city officials who regard LGA as an essential tool for leveling the financial playing field between rich and poor communities. Earlier this year, Anderson made headlines again when she blasted Minneapolis's DFL mayor, R.T. Rybak, for an eight-page newsletter--prepared at taxpayer expense--that she regarded as more about politicking than public service. (The Minneapolis Ethical Practices Board later dismissed a complaint about the mailing, but Rybak agreed to pay for a percentage of the costs).
Through it all, Sutton has represented Anderson's case behind the scenes and in the press; he is frequently referred to not as Anderson's deputy but as her "spokesman."
There is nothing especially unusual in Sutton's career trajectory. These days, the revolving door between party jobs and government jobs scarcely raises eyebrows (except, of course, when an instance of rank cronyism results in disaster; think of the appointment of Michael Brown to head FEMA). Lacking training in either auditing or the law, Sutton enjoys what appears to be, in essence, a patronage post.
Perhaps it should have been no surprise, then, when in April Sutton decided to run for the position of secretary-treasurer of the state Republican Party. Before doing so, he says, he cleared the matter with his boss and the office's general counsel. Because the secretary-treasurer post is traditionally a volunteer office, Sutton says, he figured it wouldn't demand too much of his time. And the commute couldn't be better. The Republican Party headquarters, it so happens, are located in the same St. Paul building as the state auditor's office.
Running unopposed, Sutton won the secretary-treasurer's job on June 11. In the same election, Ron Carey, an old Sutton friend, unexpectedly knocked off incumbent GOP party chair Ron Ebensteiner. Carey then tapped Sutton to fill a newly re-created position: chief operating officer. The job, Carey explains, was designed to ease the transition in party leadership. Because of Sutton's "long institutional memory," Carey says, he was an ideal selection to "make the trains run on time."
With the new title came some extra income: According to Federal Elections Commission filings, since July Sutton has received a biweekly check for $1,638--or $42,588 a year--from the state GOP. After agreeing to take on the additional party work, Sutton points out, he reduced his hours in the auditor's office by a fourth, with his pay cut accordingly.
Though this arrangement may have been tidy and legal, it raises questions about whose interests Sutton is serving--on whose time and whose dime.
Last month, Andy Aplikowski, a party activist from Blaine and chair of the GOP Senate District 51, published an anonymous complaint on his blog, Residual Forces. Along with some musings on the meaning of the new leadership, the nameless commentator concluded that Sutton "should either be a state employee or a Party staffer, but not both" and fretted that Sutton was "a scandal waiting to happen." For his part, a less judgmental Aplikowski concluded that Sutton's dual roles were "somewhat troublesome."
Sutton professes befuddlement that anyone would question the propriety of his employment arrangement. "It's obvious that someone has a political axe to grind," he says, noting that the rough-and-tumble chairmanship battle at the GOP's June convention embittered some of the party faithful.
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.
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