Drazkowski: Omar’s speaking fees violate House policy

Updated 3:45 p.m. 

A prominent state legislator's paid speeches at Minnesota public colleges have prompted accusations of ethics violations and orders by the university chancellor to halt similar payments.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, was paid $2,000 in February of 2017 to serve as a keynote speaker at Normandale Community College, and another $500 a few months later for a speaking engagement at Inver Hills Community College, according to public records.

In a press conference on Monday, state Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said accepting those payments violates a House policy that bars members from taking honoraria from groups that have business before the Legislature. Both schools are part of the Minnesota State system of public colleges, which receive state funds, and Omar is a member of the House's higher education finance committee.

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"Being a legislator is not supposed to be a transactional occupation and that just appears to be what we have here," Drazkowski said.

In an email sent to campus leaders in June, Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra urged colleges in the system to stop the practice of paying legislators for speaking engagements.

Omar, a first-term state legislator, is running for Congress in the 5th Congressional District. In a statement, Omar said she plans to return the fees to the institutions.

“A number of speaking engagements, including these, were scheduled and confirmed prior to my election, swearing-in, and instruction on Minnesota House rules. In the transition, we didn’t realize that we would need to look back and apply these rules to previously confirmed engagements," Omar said. "It’s regrettable that Rep. Drazkowski didn’t approach me directly with his concern so I could address this oversight." 

The honorariums were reported on Omar's statement of economic interests, which all state legislators are required to submit to state campaign finance officials each January. Omar was fined for filing the report months late in June. Drazkowski said he would have filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee if the honoraria had been reported during the 2018 legislative session, but lawmakers have since adjourned and gone home for the year.

Separately, Drazkowski is also alleging Omar violated state campaign finance laws by improperly using more than $2,000 in campaign funds for non-campaign purposes to pay Kjellberg Law Office, which specializes in divorce law. Carla Kjellberg, an attorney from the firm, represented Omar in a 2017 divorce proceeding, but Kjellberg said the campaign funds were used for crisis management consulting related to her 2016 campaign.

MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this post