Minn. senator regrets fishing change that irked DNR

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary
Sen. Satveer Chaudhary.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Republicans in the Minnesota Senate say they want an ethics panel to look into potential conflict of interest questions raised by a DFL lawmaker's push for new fishing rules on the lake where he owns a cabin.

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary admits he made a mistake last week when he asked for the provision in a larger outdoors bill, but he insists it was never meant to benefit him personally.

In the closing days of the 2010 session, Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, pressed the House author of a fish and game bill to add a provision before passage. The language directs the Department of Natural Resources to protect the walleye population of Fish Lake Reservoir in St. Louis County.

Chaudhary said the idea of catch restrictions came from other lake residents who wrote to him last winter.

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"Knowing that I live on the lake, I told them that it would be better for their local reps to work on this, but that I would play a role in the background," he said. "And so I kept an arm's-length distance from the issue, and made sure to disclose it when the Senate accepted the House provision."

Chaudhary, who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, says he made a "major league screwup," because he later learned he had received bad information; there was no local support for the new fishing rules.

The three-term legislator said he wants to correct his mistake next session by repealing the provision. Chaudhary insists his mistake did not cross any ethical lines.

"Usually, politicians are accused of lining their pockets with something. The only something in this case would be crappies, which doesn't make any sense to me," he said. "It really was just an honest belief that the community was all in favor of this. And that was definitely my error."

Senate Republicans aren't so sure, and they want an ethics panel to look into the matter. The GOP caucus stopped short of filing a complaint with the Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct. It instead requested an advisory recommendation.

Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the new rules Chaudhary got into the bill will result in a lake with more big fish.

"That could potentially have some impact on the value of property on the lake, the value of the lake as a fishing lake," said Hann. "I don't know. I think that's a question that, to me, is appropriate for the committee to decide whether or not that constitutes a significant financial or potential financial benefit, that should be disclosed in some more formal way than what we think actually occurred."

Two years ago, Chaudhary faced an ethics investigation. Then it was over allegations that he approached Arctic Cat and a carpenters union as possible sponsors of a cable TV show he hosted while he was backing legislative measures that would have helped them. The ethics panel cleared him of wrongdoing.

Republicans are also using the most recent episode to raise questions about the management of the legislative session. Sen. Geoff Michel, R- Edina, said too many complex bills are just routinely slapped together in the final hours.

"What it looks like to me is late-night dealmaking between two committee chairs at the end of the session," said Michel. "In some ways that's not surprising. Maybe we've gotten used to that. But again, I think voters are really tired of it. I think voters are tired of business as usual at the Capitol. And this just happens to be one that caught some extra attention."

Residents of Fish Lake Reservoir will get a chance to weigh in on the issue Thursday night, when Sen. Chaudhary plans to hold a public meeting at a local resort.