Senate panel reprimands Chaudhary over fish flap

Sen. Satveer Chaudary
State Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley speaks at a Senate ethics panel on Wednesday, June 2, 2010. The panel ethics panel reprimanded Chaudhary for circumventing the normal legislative process.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

A state senate ethics panel today reprimanded Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, for "violating the accepted norms of Senate behavior and threatening public confidence in the Legislature."

But members of the bipartisan subcommittee found that Chaudhary did not have a conflict of interest when he pushed for new walleye regulations on a lake where he owns a cabin.

The Minnesota Senate's four-member subcommittee on ethical conduct weighed in on the fish controversy at the request of Senator Chaudhary, who asked for a chance to respond to recent media reports as well as the questions Republicans raised two weeks ago.

GOP Senators had suggested Chaudhary could have benefited personally from legislation designed to boost the walleye population on Fish Lake Reservoir. But under oath, Chaudhary argued that a conservation measure for a public body of water benefits all Minnesotans. He also successfully convinced the panel to soften its proposed letter of reprimand. Chaudhary said the phrase "betrayed the public trust" was inaccurate.

"There was no money here. This was for a public benefit. This was brought by the community. And yes, it was done quickly," Chaudhary said. "And perhaps what I'm guilty of is being over zealous for the environment. And I need to curb my enthusiasm."

Chaudhary, who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, conceded that he made mistakes and should have thoroughly vetted the issue in public hearings rather than amending a bill in the final hours of the session. He later learned lake residents didn't support the move. Gov. Tim Pawlenty ultimately vetoed the entire game and fish bill and listed the Fish Lake provision among his reasons.

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Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen. R-Alexandria, said the end-of-session episode made the whole system look bad. Ingebrigtsen, one of two GOP members of the ethics panel, told Chaudhary that he should have known better after 14 years in the Legislature.

"You have to absolutely jump up and take the soap scrubber and wash yourself totally clean of moving forward with anything," Ingebrigtsen said. "We can't be the average citizen when moving forward with things like this."

The two DFL members of the panel also offered Chaudhary little sympathy. Sen. Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park said she was convinced that her colleague did not have a conflict of interest. But Scheid wanted the subcommittee to send a strong message about Chaudhary's behavior.

"I guess I'm going to tell you that I don't think Sen. Chaudhary has brought the Senate into dishonor or disrepute. But I think that doing this amendment the way it was done does betray the public trust and makes people think there they go again, " she said. "And that bothers me."

Senate rules prevent any harsher sanctions during adjournment. Voters in Chaudhary's suburban Senate district will have their say in the matter on August 10.

Fallout from the fish flap prompted former DFL State Rep. Barbara Goodwin to challenge Chaudhary in the DFL primary. Local party officials are also considering whether to strip the incumbent of their earlier endorsement.