The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board ruled this morning that a state senator's outside job with a group lobbying on behalf of Iron Range cities and schools does not constitute a conflict of interest.
But the Board opinion made clear the decision has to do only with Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, accepting a job with the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS). They say any actions he takes as a legislator could trigger additional complaints.
Campaign Finance Board officials were careful to say that their jurisdiction over Tomassoni is limited. Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Gary Goldsmith said there were questions that weren’t asked in the advisory opinion that will likely come up in the future.
Goldsmith also said Tomassoni’s request was limited to whether he could take the job.
“There’s no official action involved in taking a job, so the other part of the trigger, that the official must take action or make a decision, doesn’t exist in simply taking an employment position, Goldsmith said. “It will exist when the official is required to vote on or take other forms of action.”
The board’s ruling puts Tomassoni’s actions and votes in the Senate under a microscope. He’ll have to take care to step away from votes that could benefit RAMS. His role as chair of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board will also be scrutinized.
Campaign Finance Board member Deanna Wiener, who served in the Senate with Tomassoni in 2001 and 2002, said lawmakers typically recuse themselves from votes where they have a conflict of interest.
“In my term in the Senate, it was not uncommon for people to stand up and recuse themselves from particular issues if they had to do with their business. I don’t see this as anything different than anybody else that’s serving in any occupation that had to do with a financial impact from themselves of their business.”
Tomassoni sought the opinion from the Campaign Finance Board after his hiring came to light in January. He said he won’t lobby the Legislature and will take a leave of absence from the job when the Legislature is in session. Neither Tomassoni nor his lawyer were present at today's hearing, but Tomassoni told reporters earlier this week that there is no conflict.
“I think there’s been a huge overreaction to it,” Tomassoni said. “Until somebody tells me what I’m doing is illegal, I don’t see why I should not be keeping the job.”
Tomassoni vehemently denied that he will lobby in his new position. He said his contract states that he will not lobby for RAMS. His predecessor, Ron Dicklich, is a registered lobbyist for the organization.
Tomassoni also said the RAMS Board of Directors will decide whether to hire a lobbyist and who that person will be.
Goldsmith said Tomassoni's request to the campaign board did not ask whether Tomassoni can consult with a lobbyist in his new position at RAMS.
Republicans have argued that Tomassoni’s job represents a conflict of interest. They want Tomassoni to ask the Senate Ethics Committee for a ruling on the issue.
Tomassoni is the third Democrat in the Minnesota Senate to be criticized for his conduct. They other two are Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis and Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis,.
Republicans filed ethics an ethics complaint against Hayden for his role as a board member of Community Action of Minneapolis. The state shut down Community Action earlier this year after finding its executive director misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Ethics Committee has been deadlocked on that ruling.
Republicans also filed another complaint against Hayden and Champion. The complaint alleges that they used their influence to direct $375,000 in taxpayer funds to an organization that benefits their friends and associates. The Star Tribune reported that Hayden and Champion threatened to withhold state funding to the Minneapolis Schools if they didn’t award the contract to Community Standards Initiative (CSI).
Both Hayden and Champion deny the allegations.
The Ethics Committee has deadlocked on the complaint regarding CSI. The committee says it is also waiting for the Minnesota Commerce Department to finish its investigation before considering further action regarding Hayden’s role overseeing Community Action of Minneapolis.
There’s no word on when the Commerce Department will finish its review of Community Action of Minneapolis.