Updated: 5:58 p.m. | Posted: 4:35 p.m.
The Inver Grove Heights BEST Foundation was modest, at best, when it began handing out college scholarships to graduates of Simley High School. It gave out only $2,000 in 1988.
Eight years later, Joe Atkins took over and fundraising took off, from "maybe a dozen scholarships and a little bit more money" in 1996, he said, to 124 scholarships totaling $184,000 last year.
Atkins, an attorney, took on other roles, too. In 2002, he won a seat in the Minnesota House, where he rose to chair the House Commerce Committee, which writes laws important to many of the big firms that have donated tens of thousands of dollars to IGH BEST.
Although he's no longer chair, Atkins remains the Commerce panel's top Democrat as he continues as IGH BEST's executive director. He says the job initially paid $20,000 and now pays $25,000 annually. That's led to questions about whether his role as corporate regulator is in conflict with his efforts to raise foundation cash from those corporations.
Atkins, who's currently considering a run for the Minnesota 2nd Congressional District seat held by retiring U.S. Rep. John Kline, says there's no conflict.
"This isn't going to impact how I'm going to vote," he said. "Most of those folks, have been sponsors for a long, long time and all you need to do is look at how I vote. Whether they donate to help these kids get scholarships or not, isn't going to have an impact on the way that I vote."
One critic, however, says it's no coincidence that big corporations are making donations to a small nonprofit.
"It's a means of trying to curry favor with the lawmaker," said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy group.
Holman says it's not illegal for businesses to give to IGH BEST or for Atkins to raise money for it. He said the practice of what he calls the "relationship market" is fairly common in state legislatures and in Congress.
"From the business perspective, this is essentially influence peddling," Holman said. "This is a way to make sure that the lawmaker knows who you are and the lawmaker views you favorably."
MPR News reached out to several of IGH BEST's large corporate donors for comment. Only one, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, responded, saying in a written statement that the company has "a long history of supporting the communities where Delta people live and work throughout Minnesota and around the country."
Ron Jerich, a contract lobbyist for Reynolds American, said he reached out to Reynolds to encourage the company to give to the foundation because the Reynolds Foundation fits the mission of the BEST Foundation.
Other corporate donors to IGH BEST include AT&T, Comcast, Pfizer, CenturyLink, Reynolds American and Flint Hills Resources.
As evidence of his independence, Atkins said he pushed for a law that allowed people to disable stolen or lost smartphones despite protests from AT&T. And he said tobacco giant Reynolds American opposed his bill that would require tobacco companies to make "fire-safe" cigarettes that extinguish if left unattended.
"Based on my voting record, you can tell that sometimes I'm with them and sometimes I'm not," he said.
Holman, however, said businesses and others may be looking to limit the scope of legislation or prevent a bill from even coming up in committee.
"That's the world of lobbying," he said. "Special interests don't always get their way. However, the best way to try to influence what the lawmaker finally does is to make sure that they throw money at the feet of the lawmaker. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But if you stop throwing the money at the lawmaker, odds are you are going to lose on a regular basis."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this report said Atkins was not paid for his work with IGH BEST. This version corrects that to note that he is.